Ansella stumbled against her son, and Temmin grabbed her by the elbows. "Come, Mama, back to your fire." He supported her into the gloomy drawing room and onto the blue tufted couch beside the fire; he propped her feet up on the couch and covered her in a thick shawl draped across the couch's arm. "It's dark as Harla's Hill in here." He made to turn up the nearest lantern and discovered the wick had burned all the way down. He trimmed and relit it, turned up the second lantern on the table opposite, and stoked the fire into a fine blaze again. "You used to sit in the dark and brood at home when you were upset. You haven't eaten, have you?" He didn't wait for her answer but went straight to the bell pull and called for Miss Hanston.
"What do you mean, the kitchen's closed?" said Temmin.
"I mean it's closed," said Anda, lounging on her alcove bed with a book. "Not the cooks' fault you decided to see that hulk of a Postulant instead of eating."
"Mathanus and I've been trying to get some time alone for weeks now!"
"Was it worth missing dinner, oh bottomless pit?"
Temmin plopped himself on the couch and blew out all his breath. The door opened and Barik came in. "That wasn't so bad, was it?"
"How much of that did you see?"
"Oh, all of it."
"Even after Esterill left? Urf. I know I shouldn't have said that to Mistress Esterill, but--"
Barik reached up and put his hands on Temmin's shoulders. "No, you did right. She does deserve better than marriage to Gyors Esterill--Gyors himself deserves better than to be forced into marriage when he cannot bear a woman's touch, but that is the way of things for eldest sons who wish to inherit. He won't be unkind to her, but he can't love her. We can."
This segment is NSFW.
Temmin found the man deeply unattractive. Esterill was handsome enough, but Temmin could not be sympathetic to a man who'd deceive a girl into a loveless marriage. Nevertheless, duty required him to find something about Esterill to desire. "There is always something to desire about a person even if it is only his absence," went the Temple saying. He cleared his mind and focused on Esterill's own excitement, making it his. He opened his thin linen trousers and stroked himself, watching the petitioner for cues.
Temmin nodded, thinking. A barren woman would go to the Mother's Temple for sacrifice and if that didn't work to the Sister's Temple to see if something might be done for her medically, but when the man could not perform, the couple came straight to the Lovers' Temple. The Lovers and Beloveds would do what they could, calling in the Sisters for medical advice. If no solution could be found, the senior clergy would sort through the Lovers without charms against children for close physical matches to the husband, choosing at least two men so that no one could be sure of the father. The wife then discreetly visited the petitioning rooms until she conceived, or until it was plain she could not.
His birthday concluded, Temmin reported for duty once again in his role as Lovers' Temple clergy. After a morning spent helping teach Postulants, he went to the petitioning rooms, where Lovers and Beloveds met with worshippers needing private blessings and guidance. Sometimes the petitioners just needed a sympathetic ear or a caring bedmate, but sometimes matters required more delicacy. Such was the assignment Temmin held in his hand. He read it, panicked and tried to calm himself as he walked down the narrow hallways to where he would meet the needy couple.
Temmin opened the door to a tiny room and moved uneasily through it, checking the covering on the low, wide Temple couch, plumping the mound of cushions that served it for a back, making sure the arms would come away if need be. He inspected the room's supplies. Spare towels? Yes. Oil? Yes. Blankets in case of shock? Whose? This is ridiculous. "I can't do this."
Allis woke up slowly, her head pillowed on Temmin's shoulder. Just past her nose she could see long strands of her black hair laced among the curly gold ones furring Temmin's chest; she'd neglected to braid her hair the night before. She would have tangles to brush out.
She slipped from Temmin's grasp; he burbled in his sleep and turned over. She smiled at his broad, white back and frowned at his now just-as-white neck. The tan he'd always had from life spent more in the stables and hills than in fashionable drawing rooms had faded in his year at the Temple. It saddened her. The color gave him a common touch; it humanized him. While everyone respected his father King Harsin, few loved him. Temmin would be a king people both respected and loved, she was sure of it. When he ended his Supplicancy next year, she hoped the tan returned. She didn't want to think about next year.
This segment is NSFW.
Temmin caught her by her slim waist. "So this is my birthday present."
She stiffened. "I am not a present."
Her abrupt change in mood startled him. She was usually so hard to read, keeping all but the most professional, compassionate parts locked away, and when she let down her guard he didn't know what to do. "No, you are a gift," he began. "That's different from a present, isn't it? Presents are things. You are not a thing, but you are still a gift, at least to me."
"I'm sorry." She held him close, resting her head on his chest with a small tremor.
He stroked her black hair. "What brought this on?"
"Perhaps I'm more tired than I thought."
He kept himself from drooping. "Shall I go back downstairs?"
Tellis exhaled and tried to pick up her teacup but trembled so hard she gave up. "You thought you were dismissed from Meadow House last year, because...because of what happened between you and the Heir."
Mattie's stomach clenched at the memory of that night, a year ago almost to the day. She wouldn't have minded the Prince's attentions in a different context. He was quite handsome but he was also quite drunk when he'd discovered her half-dressed in the hedge alley with her sweetheart. If she hadn't done exactly what the Prince said, she knew she'd be cashiered though he'd said otherwise. She'd done what he asked--no more than a few kisses and some fumbling gropes at her breasts before he threw up--but her mother had fetched her home before the spoke was out, just as she'd known would happen. "If that wasn't it, then what was it?"
Later that evening, The Duke of Corland watched the King and the tailor's daughter disappear within moments of one another. Twenna had caught the royal eye much faster than he'd expected. So much the better. A tremulous voice interrupted his happy musings: "My Lord Corland!"
At his elbow he found an overly elegant little man, his round belly supported on spindly legs. "Oh. Hullo, Shelstone," said Corland; he'd almost forgotten the girl's father was here.
"I do thank you so very much for your notice of myself and my daughter."
Corland shifted his weight from uneasy heel to toe. "Not a-tall. One always wishes to see interesting people at these things, I should think."
The former tailor beamed, his smile as pomaded as his hair. "But putting in a word to the royal family's social secretary--!"