A Father’s Regret: 2. Subtle Voices

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The paper had stayed resolutely blank for hours. Cyrion kept staring at it, as if the thoughts might crystallise themselves and bleed out of his brow, dropping to the clear, unblemished surface in splashes of ink. It didn’t happen. He didn’t even know where to start.

It had been a long day. No one had managed much sleep the night before. Once whatever the healer had given her started to wear off, Shianni coasted up through the tangled layers of consciousness, and there had seemed to be no line between the nightmares and the terrors she saw when she was awake. She’d screamed so much people had come to the door, nervous faces and hunched figures in nightshirts and smallclothes, candles guarded carefully against the rain. He’d done his best to make them believe she was all right, but Valora couldn’t cope with her alone.

The steel-eyed, stern-jawed women had come back. They made possets and simple draughts, and dealt with… her injuries. She’d thrashed around so much she started bleeding again and when she realised it—rising from the pallet to find the blanket wet and her shift red—the crying and hollering only got worse.

She quieted, eventually. Cyrion had sat by the fire, aware he was useless and probably shouldn’t even be there. He hadn’t wanted to see it, anyway. It was… indecent. Bile marred the back of his tongue, and he’d struggled to turn a kindly smile on Valora when she came to join him. She was white and damp-eyed, and he held her hand and promised that it would pass. Shianni would be all right, given time. Yes. All things, in time, passed.

He kept saying it, and after a while it felt as if the girl believed him. He wished he did. Already, people were talking—and not just the things Soris was worried about, either. There could be a place for an unmarried girl who forewent a husband in order to care for her family… for a while, at least. She could claw back a reputation like that, though it would never be an untarnished one, and never enough to fix her with the match she deserved. But, if Shianni could not regain herself, there was little charity in the alienage for a crazed, fatherless lunatic. They had more than their share of beggars already, and Cyrion couldn’t bear to think of her joining those ranks.

Still, it was early days. She would recover. She would… be fine, as he kept saying. It didn’t quell the talk, of course, and that would only get worse. He saw it in the way people had looked at him last night, as he tried to hold onto the authority of his own doorstep. They would point and whisper when he passed by on the street; he would have it all to look forward to, all over again.

‘Ah, that’s Cyrion Tabris,’ they would say. ‘There he goes, the man whose wife got herself killed in the marketplace—d’you remember? Going on ten years ago now—all because she couldn’t keep her fool mouth shut, and thought she was clever enough to take on the guard. He should have learned to keep a closer watch on his womenfolk by now.’

Cyrion shook his head and tried to concentrate on the blank paper in front of him, but the imagined voices yapped on, invading his thoughts and spinning ugly, vicious narratives from the gossip he’d already overheard… and the gossip he knew would come.

‘Do you know, nearly twenty years he worked for old Bann Rodolf; bought himself a bunch of airs and graces he had no right to, didn’t he? Still a servant, at the end of the day. He paid fat coin for his daughter’s wedding, though, and look what it got him. Brought a groom in from Highever, laid on enough ale to wash the streets with, and made such a fuss it brought the nobles down here a-wenching.’

Because it had, hadn’t it? If it had been a less lavish ceremony, if he’d made less of an occasion of the thing, then maybe— No. No, that was foolish. What had happened had happened, and there was no sense tearing himself to pieces about it. Whatever they said. Whatever they would say.

He pinched the bridge of his nose, the cheap pen drooping in his fingers. All he’d wanted to do was give her something good, something to start her off right in life. Was that so bad?

‘Of course, the daughter was always a tomboy. Little hellion, as a brat. The mother’s influence, I imagine…. You’d think any father would step in and take a firmer hand. Small wonder she ended up like that. They say she murdered the arl’s son; slit him wide open like a hog. Should have hanged for it. Would have hanged for it, but some shiny officer showed up and slipped her the draft. The father probably dropped a great big bribe somewhere. Still, it’s a beggar’s choice, isn’t it? Executed for treason, or dragged off by the hair to be an army whore….’

Cyrion pushed back abruptly from the table, a tight breath stinging in his chest. Oh, yes… he could hear what they’d say before they even knew what the words would be themselves. He’d lived here all his life, seen the same faces and heard the same patterns of gossip and spiteful, malicious whispers turn around and around on the wheels of life: all grist to the rumour mill.

They were his fears too, of course, and they were worse than all the shame and humiliation he would bear on her behalf. Too easy to imagine what kind of life awaited his girl, out there. Travelling alone, except for the Grey Warden, which was no comfort in itself. Then Ostagar, and the army camp… throngs of human soldiers, starved of female company. It was just as well Merien wasn’t a pretty girl, he supposed, though it would probably matter little. She was elven, and would be fair game. The thoughts made him feel sick, but he couldn’t stop them pounding on and on in his head, however hard he tried.

Again, then, the paper. This damned letter. Cyrion took up the pen once more and blinked hard, dragging the blank sheet back into focus. He didn’t want to commit the words in ink until he knew they were right. Paper was too expensive to permit mistakes, and expense—with Merien no longer here to earn, Shianni still in need of the healer’s visits, and Valora to keep in bed and board until she and Soris were properly settled—had suddenly become a pressing issue once again.

He sighed.

Your son was a brave and valiant ma— no. That wasn’t right. It was true, but it didn’t help. We are grateful for all that Nelaros did to….

Perhaps not. Cyrion winced. There was, he supposed, little he could do but tell the truth. An awful thing had happened, and their son had been brave enough to try to do what he believed was right and… and perhaps that was, under the circumstances, the best any parent could hear. It didn’t make it easier to write.

There was no chance of getting the bodies back, naturally. He supposed that would be obvious to the family, and so there was no point in lying and pretending he could give their son a honourable funeral.

He took up the pen once more.

My dear friends,

A slightly pretentious greeting; even after month upon month of letters, he didn’t really know the family all that well. Truth be told, they’d been getting fed up with him writing. Few fathers fussed so much when they could delegate to the matchmaker, but he’d wanted it all to be perfect. His stupid vanity, he told himself, just as much as the desire to see his daughter settled right.

Your son arrived safe and well in Denerim. Nelaros spoke most highly of you and hahren Sarethia, and asked that I express his gratitude for all you had done, and pass to you and his brothers his love and affection.

I dearly wish I could tell you to expect a letter from him soon, or describe to you the happy day we had hoped to have. Unfortunately, it is my duty to bear bitter news.

He blew a long breath through tight lips, and it helped to dry the ink on the page. The words lost their shiny wetness, and turned dark and irrefutable. How did he say it? How to describe what… what no parent should have to read?

Movement at the far end of the room distracted Cyrion from his task. He looked to the source of the sound, and his face split into a broad, tender smile.

“U-Uncle?”

Shianni was up. Holding onto the wooden screen for support, bent and doddery like an old woman, and still pale as ash, but up nonetheless. He pushed away from the table, the chair barking on the worn wooden floor.

“My girl…! Here, let me help you….”

He went to her at once, offered an arm for her to lean on—and felt the slight tremble in her flesh at the touch of it. The bruises were fully out now, more or less: bloody flowers blooming across her face, neck, shoulders, chest and arms. One eye was still swollen and crusty, the lashes matted and the skin raw.

“Do you want to come and sit by the fire?”

She nodded, and he helped her, slow and easy, watching every wince and baulk along the way.

“Your brother’s coming by as soon as he finishes work,” Cyrion said, swinging the kettle over the flames on its squeaky metal hook and busying his hands with the comfortable, familiar ballet of cups and teapot. “And Valora should be back any minute. She went to see Silenis about work as a seamstress. She has a place for a capable girl, apparently, so….”

Ironic, he supposed. Valora popped out for half an hour, and missed everything. He hoped Shianni wouldn’t need him to… do anything while she was gone. He glanced at her, and saw she was casting her good eye over his unfinished letter.

“You’re writing to Nelaros’ parents,” she observed.

“Yes. Someone has to tell them… I supposed it ought to be me.”

Cyrion lowered himself into the other wooden chair, the corner of the table between them. Shianni’s long, slim, hard fingers traced the edge of the paper delicately, but she didn’t seem to really be looking at the words.

“He seemed so nice. It’s not fair.”

She spoke without much emphasis, as if talking of a lost glove.

“No,” Cyrion said carefully. “No, it is not.”

He watched her, and she tilted her head to the side thoughtfully. Her unruly red hair was bound back in two short pigtails that fell behind her ears, and a few strands were already breaking free, wisps that softly touched her forehead, and framed her beaten face.

“They would have been happy, wouldn’t they?” she asked, but her voice was dreamy and ethereal, and he doubted the question was really directed at him.

“I hoped so,” he said, in any case.

“Mm.” The beginnings of a smile touched the corners of Shianni’s mouth, but they soon faded away, like the mist of breath on glass. “And now Meri’s gone, too. Hm. I still don’t quite believe it. Did you see how fierce she looked, Uncle? With that human’s sword in her hand?”

Cyrion winced. He would rather not have contemplated it. Shianni sighed, and then gave something that sounded horribly like a small chuckle.

“You should have seen her. I never knew she could fight like that. It was… wild. Like something out of a storybook.”

An uncomfortable silence fell, broken only by the kettle starting to come to heat. He was grateful for the opportunity to go and deal with it, and to turn his attention from the child before he really started to think she’d gone mad.

It was enough to drive a woman insane, wasn’t it? The things Soris said they’d done… the things she’d seen…. But Shianni was strong. They were all strong. You had to be, otherwise you broke, and they did not break. They bowed, but never snapped. She would come back from it… she would come back to him.

She had to.

He poured hot tea, put one cup in front of her, and warmed his hands against the other. This damned cold, wet weather made his joints ache even worse than usual. If he didn’t keep them moving, they seized up altogether.

“Mother Boann’s coming back in a few days,” he said, because giving Shianni the tail of a future to hold onto seemed like a good idea. “For Soris and Valora. Will you be witness, do you think?”

A frown crinkled the pale, freckled brow, and she looked confused.

“I… I suppose so,” she murmured, but without enthusiasm.

He smiled, forcing the gesture from unwilling lips. “Good.”

Shianni stared at the cup for a while and then extended her hand and, grasping it as if it was an unfamiliar thing, raised it gingerly to her mouth. Cyrion watched, wincing in sympathy when the touch of hot tea to her cut lip made her flinch.

She drank, though, and that was surely a start.

~o~O~o~

He went to the hahren’s house again in the morning, and was fortunate to catch Valendrian at home. He seemed drawn and weary, his face bearing the same look of closed-in, proud circumspection as always, but his lips pressed into a terse, grim line, set tighter than before. Cyrion nodded to him in greeting.

“Elder.”

Valendrian’s wide mouth quirked slightly at the corners. The humour was not lost on Cyrion; there was less than twelve years between them. Still, the hahren inclined his head.

“My friend. How is your niece?”

“Better,” Cyrion said charily. “She’s up, eating, drinking. But—”

“Indeed.”

There was neither the need nor desire to discuss further details. Valendrian, like most of the alienage, had been out there under the vhenadahl when they came back. Soris and Merien, blood-spattered and bruised, with Shianni’s ragged, bleeding form slung between them, and the other two women tottering on behind. Everyone had seen. Everyone knew. Her shame, her disgrace… and the danger that spilled out in its black, poisonous wake, and now threatened to taint them all.

He cleared his throat, a small frown pinching his brow. The hahren’s boots still had a thin rime of mud on them, though they’d obviously been wiped clean. Cyrion took it to mean he’d been out already this morning, and wondered how hard Valendrian was working to keep the guard at bay.

It stood to reason, of course. While he was grateful that it wouldn’t be her who paid the price—such a small word for the complex, confused, nerve-shattering swell of relief that had engulfed him when he learned of the conscription—he was aware there would be repercussions. That much was unavoidable, as were the whispers that had already begun. He’d seen it on the faces of the few people he met on his way down here; as if it was his fault she wasn’t here to bear the punishment. As if, somehow, he’d planned it this way.

Funny, Cyrion thought, how a community so renowned for its tight-knit ties could turn so easily on its own, and unite in spite and anger.

No matter. It would pass, perhaps, and the important thing was that she was safe—or as safe as she was going to be, in that new life of hers. He didn’t want to think about it, wanted to pretend that he could ignore it, almost as if it had never happened.

He realised he was still staring at the hahren’s boots. Valendrian coughed gently.

“You intend to proceed with the… wedding, I hear?”

Cyrion smiled tightly. The last time they’d discussed this, a little more than a week ago, it had all been so different. The rush and the chaos of the thing being pushed forward, with all the scrabbling to get the arrangements made in time, preparing in a maelstrom of excitement and anticipation. The word then had been ‘festivities’—hardly appropriate now.

“Yes.” He nodded. “I think they should be settled as soon as possible. Mother Boann is prepared to officiate, so—”

Valendrian lofted an eyebrow. “Is that wise?”

His tone was measured and calm, but well-polished steel lurked behind it.

Cyrion held his resolve, and met the other man’s unblinking stare. “I believe so, elder. I… believe that it should be as close it can to what they were expecting. What everyone was expecting.”

A proper wedding, he might have said, once. For the briefest moment, the ugly snake of a remembered voice curled through his mind.

If you want to dress up your pets and play tea parties, that’s your business….

Silence had fallen around those words like the pieces of a broken mirror, sharp and jagged, and ready to cut. He’d known then it wouldn’t—couldn’t—end well. And he hadn’t moved a damn muscle.

“Really?” Only the word indicated surprise; nothing in Valendrian’s voice or face suggested the faintest hint of disbelief. He sniffed eloquently. “Well, I see your point. The strongest tree grows from the sturdiest roots, and all that. When do you have in mind?”

“Er, two days’ time, I hope.” Cyrion blinked, pushing the cobwebs of memory away. “The priest intends to come early. I thought, do it in the morning. Quick and simple… while the sun’s bright.”

The hahren nodded slowly, his gaze slipping to the knotted wood of the shutters, framing a window whose waxed paper panes were spotted with grease and dead flies.

“All right. And… the boy’s family? In Highever. You’ve written, I understand?”

“Yes.”

Another nod. Valendrian’s mouth became an even tighter line, a thin, dark scar running across his ravaged face. Age wore them hard, Cyrion supposed. The years, and the privations, were unkind, but it was poverty that quickened them, and nothing more. The pangs of the day’s dampness still pained his joints, and he clenched his hands as they hung loosely at his sides, the sharp throb in his fingers at least proof he could bend them.

“I know Sarethia a little,” the hahren confessed. “Second cousin on my mother’s side. I sent a note of condolence. She will, I am sure, be a comfort to the family and—as you know—they have other children.”

It seemed an unkind thing to say, as if speaking merely of spare socks or enough plates to host a big family meal. The reassurance of extra supplies. Cyrion knew that was not how it was meant, aware that Valendrian had, once, also lost an only child.

He inclined his head, wishing he could be artful enough to convey gratitude without clumsiness.

“True.”

The hahren let a long, low breath slide from his lips. “If… if it should help you to know,” he began, looking guardedly at Cyrion from beneath thick, grizzled brows, “I do not think there will be any official… retaliation, let us say… until the king’s forces return from Ostagar.”

He had been meeting with the guard, then. One brief, shifting glance at the elder’s face told Cyrion of the bribes and barters that must have been involved, and tongues of shame bound him to silence.

“The palace district is… distinctly vacant,” Valendrian said carefully. “There is little going on in the way of governance, and not likely to be—as far as we, and this matter, are concerned—until Arl Urien returns. That does not, of course, go for the rest of the city. I am advising extreme caution to those who leave the gates. You have heard what happened at the docks yesterday?”

“The docks?” Cyrion frowned, lamentably aware of how little he’d listened to any news from outside the alienage in the past few days.

“There is a, uh, strong current of distrust emerging,” Valendrian said delicately, fixing him with a very dark look.

Ah. That. Yes, Cyrion realised. He’d felt it when he slipped out to see Mother Boann. The market district was a greasy cauldron of tension, roiling and bubbling, with anger breaking the surface in hot, explosive vents. Someone had thrown a stone at him. It had glanced off his arm and, as he hadn’t seen where it came from, he’d written it off as a cruel child or a rambling drunk.

“An elven man was beaten senseless by a group of human dockworkers when he arrived for his shift. Ladon Therulis. He and his wife rent a house in the area… though I believe they will return to the alienage soon. I have been asked to arrange matters for them.”

Dizziness tugged at Cyrion’s brow. He knew the family name, if not the man himself.

“That’s… terrible,” he murmured.

The hahren shrugged. “It is to be expected. Rumours spread faster than poxes, try as the guard might to keep things quiet. At the moment, people are willing to believe a group of elves broke into the arl’s estate, intent on robbery and murder. They say Urien’s… son,” he supplemented, as if unwilling to say the name, or credit that monstrous bastard with humanity, even in death, “died courageously in the defence of his father’s property, and of justice itself.”

The words were dry as sand, and grated a little as they scraped between Valendrian’s lips. Cyrion winced, and disgust coiled in his belly, but he was too weary to try to be shocked.

“I see.”

“Things will become… difficult,” Valendrian said, with elegant understatement.

Cyrion’s skin prickled. There was no change in the hahren’s voice or face, but the strength of the accusation was as vivid, as painful, as an open-palmed slap.

He nodded, unable to meet Valendrian’s eye. It was all there; not stated overtly, not directed at him, but it didn’t need to be. It was his responsibility, his burden… his shame. Ultimately, this whole damn mess was his fault, and in his daughter’s absence, it was him that the people would blame.

“Still.” The hahren brought his hands together, his hard, hollow palms clapping dully. “We have a wedding to arrange. Two days’ time, then? And Shianni will be well enough to stand witness?”

“I think so.”

“Excellent. It will do her good,” Valendrian said, looking levelly at Cyrion. “And, as for you, my friend… you will be strong. Yes?”

“Yes, elder,” Cyrion echoed meekly.

Valendrian smiled, though it didn’t seem to quite reach his eyes, and shook him by the hand. It was a warm gesture, filled with a traditional symbolism of respect. His left hand grasped Cyrion’s arm, their right hands clasped tightly together, wrist to wrist. A gesture of respect, and belonging… one he’d barely ever thought about before, used to seeing it, using it, on the completion of every business deal, the conclusion of family meetings or discussion between men. Yet, even now, it wasn’t quite enough to cling to.

Cyrion let himself out and walked home, his shoulders bowed with the weight they carried. When he got in, he found Valora sitting behind a pile of darning almost higher than her head, and the house smelled strongly of soap.

“Uncle!” She looked up brightly at him, her smile far less tentative than he’d seen it before. “I have some work! Silenis brought this round just after you left. I’m to do all these and return them by tomorrow morning. Oh, and watch where you tread. The floor’s a little slippy. Silenis brought us some wash to do, too.”

Nonplussed, Cyrion blinked into the dimness of the long, low room. Sure enough, the caulked wooden tub they used for bathing stood in front of the fire, and swathe after swathe of wet clothes were hung around the place. The muggy, damp warmth made the air taste stale and faintly metallic, and a brief look at the array of shirts, smallclothes and skirts confirmed one thing: they were all human-sized.

His throat tightened around an absurd twinge of outraged anger. Stupid, he told himself. He should be proud of the girl. Pleased she’d had enough sense and initiative to do this… even if it meant turning his home into an impromptu laundry.

Shianni was kneeling by the tub, taking the washboard to a twist of wet linen that he guessed must be some shem’s undershirt. Her movements were awkward and slow, but she seemed determined. She glanced up, smiling lop-sidedly at him.

“A copper a bundle, Uncle. Two on the darning, and much more for fancy work. When my eye’s better, I’ll be able to do some of that, too.”

Cyrion nodded wearily. “That’s… wonderful, girls.”

He dredged up a smile in return, and picked his way between the low-hanging, dripping garments, in search of a chair that didn’t have anything spread out over it to dry.

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A Father’s Regret: 3. Little Shadows
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