Inside, Harsin was stripping as he hurried into his bedchamber; his valet Gram followed behind, stooping to pick up the discarded riding clothes, and his secretary Winmer brought up the rear. Harsin changed into fresh clothes and washed his face. "This would have to happen when I was at Middlemont. Cancel any appointments for the next three days, Winmer, and send word that while it was a lovely interlude et cetera, I will not be seeing Miss Shelstone in the immediate future. Do not under any circumstances say anything about the Queen's indisposition, to Miss Shelstone or anyone else." Winmer nodded, scribbling in his neat little book, and Harsin stepped through his bedchamber door through the private hallway and into the Queen's bedchamber.
So this was her Neya's Day blessing. She'd loved being pregnant. She loved her children. She would love this one unreservedly--loved her already. It had to be a girl; if she carried a son, Teacher would have known immediately and announced it to Harsin.
What would he think? He'd preen and strut, the smug bastard. Pregnancy would give her an excuse to stay away from him. Except pregnancy usually made her...what was an acceptable word? More...receptive to him? Demanding, more like, said a traitorous inner voice. She might go home to Whithorse and put some distance between them, but she could not leave her three oldest, just before the girls might leave forever. They were all grown and didn't need her any more, but she still needed them. And it would look as if she were running from that Shelstone bitch. She burst into exhausted, frustrated tears. "I don't know what to do. Please don't tell him yet."
On his return to the Keep, Harsin called for both Winmer and Teacher and informed them of Twenna's condition; he ordered his secretary to draw up papers making Elbig Shelstone a baronet. "Find a holding. Something quite small and quite far away."
"Are you sure, sir?" said Winmer, wrinkling his nose.
"He is a loathsome little toad and a rascal, but it must be done. I will elevate Twenna to an earldom after the baby is born, and her father needs some kind of rank. Ready Middlemont for Miss Shelstone's prolonged stay. Send Hallik and his wife to run things--apologize to old Crookman and give him a sop to make up for Hallik's usurpation--oh, what is it, Winmer?" snapped the King.
This section is NSFW.
A letter from Mr Winmer came, inquiring after Miss Shelstone's health. She answered she felt rather poorly but was recovering. A note in the King's own hand followed later the same day; might she improve enough to attend a private luncheon tomorrow at Foothill Lodge? Elbig dictated her reply: she would.
Twenna didn't know which of her inexpert coquetries had worked--she'd done little more than pout--but Harsin returned to her bed not two days after the unfortunate incident at Neya's Day. He showered her with gifts: shot silk for a new dress; tortoise-shell haircombs from Pau'a; and a magnificent set of matching sapphire-and-diamond earrings, collar, ring and bracelets, "the color of your eyes, my dear. You are to keep them forever."
She was back in Elbig's good graces. "Our sponsor would like you to start dropping little hints in his favor, darling."
"Hints, Papa? What hints?"
Ansella paused, remembering their early marriage. She had loved him, though she thought she'd schooled herself out of it by now. She wondered if he'd loved her then or simply wanted her. He couldn't possibly love her now, not after so many years apart. "I'm surprised you're nostalgic for that time. I know I'm not."
"You never think back on our early days?"
"Not in the way you seem to." She moved away from him onto her back to stare up at the canopy again.
Harsin twisted onto his side and propped his head on his hand. "What do you think of?"
This section is NSFW.
Temmin stumbled through the shadowed gardens, swatting away worshippers eager to be one with him. Where was the girl with the sapphire eyes? He should know her name, but what did it matter? Neya said she was his, he would find her, and when he did--
There! She was running towards him, she was in his arms, she was clawing at him. "Wait--wait," he said. He picked her up and slung her over his shoulder; passers-by cheerfully hooted congratulations. Where could he take her? He shifted her weight with a grunt and headed for a nook few knew about, where the grass grew long and bushes blocked the wind.
This section is NSFW.
They ran along the gardens' lit paths, until they came to the wide expanse of lawn between the formal gardens and the grove of trees stretching dark and wild toward the river. Lantern-bearers hurried behind the runners, waiting to stake out a path for the worshippers. Behind them, muscular Lovers loitered with sections of a portable dais; the King and Queen attended the Spectacle this year and would be given a proper viewing platform wherever the Lovers happened to fall.
Fall They finally did, on the lawn near the fringe of the forest, but first Neya and Nerr led them all a chase through the trees, whipping rhododendron branches back into Their followers' faces to Temmin's great irritation. When they assembled the guarding circle round the Gods, they were all breathing hard; Justinna Postulant had lost her vest, the flounce on Anda's best skirt had ripped clean off, and Mathanus's blond hair resembled a haystack more than ever.
Embis Winmer was straightening papers on the desk he shared with his master when the King entered their office. "Ah, Winmer. Just when I need you. Might we get Miss Shelstone admitted to the Neya's Day Spectacle?"
"I don't know, Your Majesty," answered the secretary, correctly interpreting the question as a command. "There are several barriers to her guaranteed admittance, not least her unmarried state."
"I find it hard to believe there's anyone in the City who thinks she's a virgin because she's unmarried," chuckled Harsin.
Winmer gave a sliver of a smile. "Oh, most certainly not, sir. I believe she is well known. Perhaps the best known of your intimate friends ever."