Lord Slaviana Darris was up and prowling Hearthome, something he did with some frequency while the household slept. The Darris servants had gotten used to it, and unless he spoke to them they went on about their business as if he weren't there. Slaviana herself was still asleep, curled up in their big bed, never noticing that he'd slipped away. Ari looked in on her as he prowled, as he did the children: sixteen-year-old Roksana, who'd somehow become Roxie despite the best intentions of her parents and who had been so happy when Vondar was born only four years ago, Roxie never really wanting to be Lady Darris as it turned out; Vondar himself, and his twin sister Reyalda, sleeping as soundly as their mother; and Reyno, the youngest, who opened eyes as grey as his father's when Ari paused in the nursery doorway, but made no sound to awaken the nurse who drowsed lightly in her chair by the fire, only exchanged a solemn glance with him before turning over and falling asleep, as if obscurely comforted by his father's sleepless patrol.
His mother-in-law, Eleanora Lady Darris, was probably asleep, too, this late in the night, but Ari kept his distance from her. She already thought him volatile enough without knowing about his restless nights. There was some justification for it at the moment, true, what with two of his nephews having been kidnapped only four days ago, but the boys were back home, safe, and Ari prowled like this nearly every night. So he went on through the darkness, accompanied only by Ruslan, his spaniel, and checked on the safety of those he loved. At least, those of them who lived in his house.
But because he was up and about this particular spring night, he heard the knocking at the front door and came into the hallway to see who could possibly be disturbing them at this late hour. The footman who'd answered the door met him in the hallway. "Lady Flagg, wishing to speak to you, m'lord," he said softly, gesturing toward the parlor.
That name still had the power to snag at Ari's heart, even though Cassie had been dead for six years now, and Michael Cohea's adopted daughter had had it for three. Unlike his brother Callin, he grudged Sir Kennerl Flagg neither his remarriage to a much younger, more restful, wife nor his two new children, half-sibs to Ari's blood niece and nephew, nor did he worry overmuch that Lenora would forget her mother because her father remarried; the girl had been three when Cassie was killed, she couldn't remember her no matter what Kennerl did, or didn't do, about it. But he sincerely missed Cassie, and whenever he heard the name that used to be hers, he grieved a little, even while wondering what could possibly have brought Rahere Flagg to his door at this time of night.
He paused in the doorway, looking at his almost-sister-in-law with concern. She had sat down on the sofa, and was clearly tired; she had laid her head on the sofa's back and closed her eyes and looked older than her twenty-four years. Clearly the strain of Aldan's abduction and caring for Kennerl during the last few days had told on her; Callin, whose eldest son Kestrel had also been taken, had raged to his brother this morning about it being Kennerl's fault. Ari wasn't sure it was really a man's fault when someone tried to force him into doing something he clearly didn't want to do, but Callin wouldn't see reason where Kennerl was concerned. Ari expected that Kennerl blamed himself as much, if not more, than Callin, and it was Rahi who would have had to keep him on an even keel. Callin after all could go tearing off to Chaiku and rescue the boys; Kennerl had had to stay in the city and defend his client, knowing that his son's life rode on his throwing the case and losing that of his client's... it couldn't have been easy, even without Cassie's death complicating the mixture.
"Rahi," he greeted her softly as he went into the parlor, "is all well with you? Is there something I can do for you?" She startled upright, clearly not having expected him so quickly. "I wasn't sleeping," he assured her as she tried to apologise. "What's wrong?"
Her smoky blue Mevramean eyes were cloudier than usual. "Ari, Aldan needs you," she said without preamble.
"Aldan?" Ari was startled. "What for?"
"It should be his father, of course, but Kennerl's just not up to it. He'll get it worked through in time, but not in time to talk to Aldan... I'm sorry, Ari," she saw that he didn't understand her. "You don't know. Callin didn't tell you."
"I don't know," Ari smiled ruefully. "He told me a lot, but I don't know why Aldan would need to talk to me, so I guess he didn't." He didn't bother to tell her that what Callin had told him was mainly that Kennerl needed to be taken out and thrashed. "Aldan's okay..." he broke off, seeing her eyes darken. Sweet Erinna, how could Callin skip over...? "I'm sorry, Rahi. What is it?"
"I will tell you a true thing," she said, suddenly fierce and reverting to the Mevramean turn of phrase she'd employed as a newcomer to the city. "Some men should be killed most painfully, most painfully. But it is to be expected when you let your children be... and another true thing: I do not care that he is not my own."
Ari found himself stepping back from Rahi's rage, remembering his history lessons; and that she had been born Rahere ed Kumara al Azred, and raised so. He wondered briefly if she had turned on Callin in such fashion, and if so, wished he'd been there to see it. But she got herself back under control quickly; Michael would have given her his lovely Cohea manners to cover that Mevramean temper even if he couldn't eradicate it.
"I'm sorry, Ari," she apologised. "It's anything but your fault. I'm just so angry... and there is no-one left to kill."
"Think nothing of it, Rahi," Ari said. "We all go mad when our children are threatened. And of course Aldan's yours, now; how could he not be? And I'm his blood uncle, so of course I'll do what I can for him. Just tell me the problem."
"Aldan blames himself for the whole thing, including Kestrel's involvement, and what happened to the guards. But that's not the worst of it. Some of those men... they abused Aldan." Now it was Rahi stepping back from what blazed in Ari's grey eyes. She went on, "Kennerl should talk to him, but... Kennerl's blaming himself, and"
"And Kennerl is handicapped. He believes in justice and getting what you deserve. Aldan doesn't need to hear that, not now."
"Will you talk to him, Ari? I know he's not your responsibility, but"
"Rahi," Ari interrupted her firmly, but trying to be gentle. "He is my blood nephew, my sister's son. Of course he is my responsibility. Of course I'll talk to him."
"Of course now," Ari said. "Now is when you came. Come on, take me to Flagg House."
Aldan was shut up in his room, had been, according to Rahi, almost the whole three days he'd been back. He came down to eat, and then went back up, even ignoring his little sister Lenora, who had taken to sitting in the hallway outside her brother's room until her stepmother hauled her away, explaining that Aldan wasn't being mean, but was sick. His father was worried about him, but at first he hadn't known the full extent of his son's problem, and now he didn't feel in control of himself enough to talk to the boy. And Aldan didn't want to see anybody, not even Kestrel, his best friend. Ari went up to his nephew's room alone.
"Aldan?" he knocked on the door. "It's Uncle Ari."
"What do you want?" That was rather rude for Aldan, but Ari didn't let it bother him.
"To talk with you."
"I'm tired. Go away."
That wasn't promising, but it was expected. Ari pushed the door open and went inside anyway. Aldan sat up and stared at him with bruised, distrustful eyes, his dark hair tangled around his face. People said Aldan looked like Ari, but Ari, who spent remarkably little time looking at himself, didn't see it that way. He'd always reminded Ari of Cassie, a little, but now, ever since Reyno had been born, Ari saw his own youngest in his nephew. For just a moment, he was shaken by an odd feeling of almost prescience, saw his own son looking just as hurt and bruised, and then he shook it off and saw only his nephew, looking sullen more than anything else. Not that Ari believed in appearances.
He sat on the edge of the large desk (trust lawyer Kennerl to make sure his son had a desk in his room) and looked at his nephew. One of Aldan's spaniels, bred by Ari, leapt from the bed to paw at his knee. He pulled her ear in greeting, but was glad when she jumped back on the bed at Aldan's call. A boy's dog should stick with him, otherwise he was really lost. Aldan pulled his dogs closer to him and stared at his uncle through his unkempt hair.
"What do you want?" he repeated.
"I haven't seen you since you... got back from Chaiku, Aldan. I wanted to."
"Well, now you have. Please go away now."
"I think not," Ari said mildly. "I want to talk."
"I don't. Please go away." Aldan's voice broke and he flushed with embarassment. "II should be in bed." He blushed again, and added quickly, "I mean, asleep. It's really late..." his voice trailed off.
Ari regarded his nephew, his favorite sister's only son, with a fond mixture of amusement and compassion. Blushingthat was Flagg, as was his slow maturing. In fact, in everything except his looks, Aldan was his father's son. So it was a good thing, Ari admitted it to himself, that Cassie wasn't here to harrass the boy into 'getting over it'. Aldan needed different handling, as Ari well knew from the hours they'd spent together. "You're wanting to go to sleep?" he finally asked. "I must admit, you look like you could use some. Not sleeping well, nai?" He'd almost said 'cariad', but at fourteen Aldan was at that awkward age where that casual endearment sat ill on a boy, especially given what had just happened. And if Aldan were Novari enough to have Night Demons, and then not sleeping would be a life-long problem, as Ari knew too well. So he was relieved when Aldan said only,
"No. I don't want to sleep. I hate the dark. I hate not knowing who's in the room. I hate everything!" he yelled suddenly, making his spaniels cower, and then looked abashed. Flaggs don't carry on.
"I don't doubt it," said Ari. "And why shouldn't you?"
Aldan looked at him doubtfully. "Aren't you going to tell me 'no, you don't'? Or that I shouldn't say stuff like that?"
"I hadn't planned on it," Ari put one booted foot on the end of Aldan's bed and met his troubled grey eyes with a steady gaze. "At the moment I fully expect you do, and as for saying such thingswell, Hell and Chaos, it's only me. Say what you feel, that's what blood relatives are for. "
"Aren't you going to tell me it'll all be all right?" Aldan was trying to sound sarcastic, but he wasn't quite making it.
"I hadn't planned on saying that, either. I can run someone up here who will, I expect, if you want."
"No, thanks." Aldan pulled one of his dogs into his lap and hugged her. The other pushed against him, and then rested his head on Aldan's leg. After a moment, Aldan looked up through his long Morgan lashes at his uncle and asked, "So what did you plan on saying?"
"The truth. It's not going to be all right again. Oh, it'll even itself out, sure enough. There'll probably be days, weeks, when you won't think about it. You'll do fine. But it's not going to be as if it never happened, which is what you mean by all right."
The boy rested his forehead against his dog. "Will I really..." he faltered into silence.
"Yes," Ari said firmly.
Aldan looked up at him hopefully. "I mean..."
"I know what you mean."
"...with girls," Aldan finished anyway, determined to have no misunderstanding, even though he was blushing again.
"With girls," Ari nodded. "I know. When you're ready for girls, you'll have no problems. Not caused by this, anyway," he added, because he meant to be scrupulously honest.
When it became apparent that Aldan didn't quite know what else he'd meant to say, Ari answered, "It's nothing like, nai. You'll see that when the time comes; it's nothing like."
Aldan leaned over his spaniel again, some of the tension easing from his thin shoulders. He was quiet for a long time. Ari respected his silence, glancing over the objects on Aldan's desk. He picked up a chunk of raw amethyst crystal and turned it over in his hands, and then put it down and picked up a small stuffed animal, a lizard or something, with a gaping, toothy, crooked grin, and a row of spikes down its back and twisted tail. It was less than half the length of his hand, with black eyes of twisted embroidery knots. It was an unlikely object and it made him smile. Taking it by the tail, he made it worry his finger with its felt teeth.
"Norrie gave me that," Aldan said. Ari glanced up and Aldan continued, "She made it."
"Did she? Already she has more skill with her needle than her mother." Ari put the beastie back on the desk and waited. Aldan didn't disappoint him; he still had at least one more important question.
"Why?" He stopped at the sound of his voice, and then took a deep breath and tried to steady his tone. "Why didwhy did it happen?" Ari wasn't sure he hadn't changed the words at the last minute, but the question was comprehensive enough.
"There is no why," Ari answered simply. Aldan stared at him, so he went on. "There is no reason for things like this, nai bach, don't worry yourself looking for one. Oh, aye, your father has the unenviable position of Prince's Defender, which means he has to make the Prince's Advocate prove that felons need hanging, which he does very well, and somebody decided that they wanted somebody else to hang whether he deserved it or no, which he didn't, which means they had to find some way to make your father do less than his bestbut that's not a reason, it's only a circumstance. There is no reason. There are no patterns. There's no fit. There is no god sitting in Heaven, watching over us mortals and meting out reward and punishment according to our actions. Any gods that direct events are randomly cruel, like life itself. Don't wear yourself out looking for meanings. Save your energy for savoring the good things that you stumble into and getting out of the bad."
"Do you really believe that, Uncle Ari?"
"I do. It's the truth. I know what you're doing, Aldan. You're trying to find out what it was you did that caused this thing to happen, so that you can make yourself safe by never doing it again. Are you not?"
"I'm sorry, sort of; there's nothing you can not do to keep yourself safe in the world. Random cruelty will strike you down sooner or later. If you spend all your life trying to keep safe from it, you won't enjoy living, and you won't be safe either, because safety is an illusion. Evil men prosper and good men suffer,and that's the way of it." Ari paused, looking at his nephew. "I wish I could tell you how to be safe, nai bach. If I could keep you safe myself, I'd do anything I could. But I can't; nobody can keep anybody safe, themselves nor others, no matter how much they love them."
"Do they?" Aldan whispered.
Ari stared at him long and hard, trying to divine what he meant. Then it came to him, suddenly and piercingly. "O bach, of course they love you. We love you. No matter what."
"No matter what I do?"
"Probably. For certain, no matter what somebody else does to you." Ari had never sounded more certain in his life, and Aldan was convinced. Shoving his dogs aside, he launched himself at his uncle, crying at last. When he finally slept, he was holding tight to Ari's hand, and his uncle stayed with him through the disturbing dreams that turned, at last, to deep sleep.
Ari left Aldan sleeping when the sky lightened and descended to Flagg House's first floor, following the scents to the breakfast room. Kennerl was there, dressed for the office, and Rahi, who gratefully offered Ari coffee and pastries, which he accepted as his due. To her query, he said, "Aldan's much better, I think. I left him sleeping, and easier in his mind."
"Thank you, Ari." She smiled gratefully at him, and laid her hand on her husband's.
Kennerl looked at Ari with a fine mix of gratitude and annoyance. Ari took it for granted that the annoyance was self-directed and blithely continued eating his pastry. "What did you tell him?" Kennerl asked.
"That he'd recover. That people loved him," said Ari and took a drink of Rahi's cook's excellent coffee. "Mostly that it was reasonless. Like life," he took the last bite of his pastry and sent a melting look at Rahi, who shook her red head at him but put another cinnamon roll on his plate.
"Reasonless? Life? You told him" Kennerl couldn't finish; he stared at Ari in shock, his dark eyes filled with surprise and censure.
"Oh, you don't want him to believe that," said Ari, not particularly surprised. "Law and order, and all that. Virtuous deeds will be rewarded, and evil ones punished? It's a good theory for small children, so solipsistic and self-centered they can't be made to see that virtue should be its own reward, that you should do good not to be well done by, but because doing good is right. Well, tell him I was wrong, then. But do you really want him searching through his fourteen-year-old's catalog of sins for the one that earned him that?"
No, Kennerl didn't. "Well, when you put it that way" he began, and Ari cut him off.
"That's how Aldan put it," he waved a preemptory hand at his former brother-in-law. "That's how anybody puts it. You're doing it, aren't you? 'What did I do to bring this on my son?' Right? Well, you're an adult, you can fight your own battles. But Aldan shouldn't have to fight this one, not this... this... stupid one. He's a good boy, and he never earned a rape." Ari's eyes grew bleak, not that he realised it, as memory assaulted him. He fought his voice steady again and finished, "But he's your son, and if you want him fretting over his actions like that..."
"Of course I don't." Kennerl's eyes dropped before the younger man's. "You're right." He stood up. "I have to go to work..."
Ari reached up and took hold of Kennerl's arm. "Sit down. You need to talk about this, as much as he did."
"Ari, I have to go to my office." Kennerl was still avoiding his eyes.
"It's your office; they'll wait for you."
"You think you're to blame, don't you; for this, and for Cassie and Calda, too."
Kennerl might have left anyway, but Rahi put her hand on his shoulder and he found himself sitting instead.
"Listen to me, Kennerl. Cassie didn't die because of you, or your job. They didn't even die because your father was a good businessman, which I would like you to remember was the stated reason for it. She and Calda died because some murderous idiot decided to kill them. That's it. And Aldan and Kestrel were grabbed because some other murderous idiot decided to kill whatsisname by proxy. It doesn't really have anything to do with you. Green-eyed Chaos, Kennerl. Why is that so hard to see?"
"You can't deny it: Kestrel was grabbed because he was with my son"
"That's my brother," accused Ari. "Callin's no more rational than you. Pay him no mind."
"and my son was taken to coerce menot somebody else. It's my fault." Kennerl was stubborn.
Ari shrugged. "Believe that if you want. It amazes me that you would want, but"
"Ari, truth isn't palatable. Not usually. What you want to believe isn't usually the truth."
"Ooo, is that North Central Coast ethic? If it's too good to be true, it's not?" Ari shook his head. "And what about good things that are true? Your children, for instance? Flowers...this coffee? Truth isn't bad, or good. It just is. We don't get what we deserve, we just get what we get. And what about Calda? What did she do? She wasn't seven yet. Youyou did something evil, so you lost your daughter, but what did she do? Nothing? That's almost worse, Kennerl; no, that is worse than random. You did something bad enough to lose a daughter, but not a son, and not Norrie, just Calda. How in green Dhassa are your children to defend themselves against your evil agency?" Ari took a breath and tried to calm himself down. "Do you really believe that you deserve the bad things, but not the good things? Or do you think you deserve them both? I don't think you earn either, good or bad. It's all just random." He took another deep breath and blew it out in a great sigh, shaking his head again. "Oh, go to work, Kennerl. Go to work."
"We may not agree, Ari, but I am grateful to you for talking to Aldan. And I won't tell him you were wrong. I'm too selfish."
"He's not blaming you, Kennerl."
"If he has to look for blame, I'd rather he put it on me than himself, but... I'd as soon he didn't. I'm doing enough of that for both of us."
Ari smiled gently at the lawyer. "Go to work. I'm going home, myself, and back to bed."
|PART ONE: Ari 1 | PART TWO: Ari 2 | PART THREE: Desilyn | PART FOUR: Ari 3 | PART FIVE: Ari 4|
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