Saturday Story: Reaping the Harvest Part Six

Chapter 6: Lover, Mistress, Folly

 

Kiara watched the cold autumn rain dripping down across NovRodi. She pulled her little coat closer around her. It seemed as if she felt a chill even through her layers of clothes and fur, and the heat from the stove in the corner of the room. The rain on the glass twisted the scene outside, making horses and people into strange, warped versions of themselves. Kiara wondered if the rain did the same to people’s insides. She felt strange and twisted, not the Kiara of four years before.

She returned to pacing the empty room, walking steadily back and forth up and down the length of the green and white reception chamber. She needed to move and to think, as often happened following one of her weekly visits to see her son. He’d begun walking, toddling from nurse to chair to other nurse and back. Pjtor always stared at her, preferring his nursemaid’s hand to his mother’s. He also preferred Empress Molly Olga, who insisted that she and not Kiara knew what was best for the boy and that she would see to his proper upbringing. She also hinted about needing a spare, tempting Kiara to remind her aunt-in-law that such an outcome required two parties, since the age of miracles had passed and Godown now expected His children to do their best before He intervened. Pawl had not lain with her as man and wife since her last mis-birth, over a year before. His military things took more and more time, to the point that at midsummer Empress Molly Olga had scolded him for not doing more in the government.

Indeed, but her majesty then snaps at him, and me, for daring to venture an idea or opinion about matters of government. Kiara turned at the end of the room and began going the other way. I think he is getting too interested in Frankonia, and in the Turklavi, for peace, but I am ignorant and too forward, so what do I know. That Kiara’s thoughts mirrored those of a number of the members of the imperial court meant nothing. Empress Molly Olga had made that exquisitely, painfully clear in front of everyone.

“You, child, are here as the wife of my heir. A proper wife has no business outside rearing children, pleasing Godown, and pleasing her husband. Such an excessive interest in government and policy does not please your husband. As you were told before, you have no business, less than no business, attempting to interfere in matters so far beyond your proper place.” Kiara could her the old woman’s voice in her memory and winced again. I wasn’t recommending policy, I was trying to explain why Lord Korbin turned different colors and almost fainted when Pawl suggested that closer ties to the Turklavi might be wise. I do not think that the Eastern Empire is ever going to be a concern for NovRodi. Frankonia perhaps because they have been a nuisance in the past, but they are not trying to kill all of us. The Easterners defeated the Turklavi once, but they and the Harriers are not gone, and NovRodi remains tempting. Everyone still thinks we are weak and backwards. They were, Kiara admitted since honesty demanded it, but not that far behind, and no longer the small, terrified people hiding in the forests and swamps like they had been before Emperor Pjtor’s time. But, and the but seemed to loom larger every time Pawl mused about possibly making friends with the Turklavi and turning the Harriers against the southern Spice Kings, the Turklavi and Harriers still wanted to force everyone on Colplatschki to abandon Godown to worship the goddess Selkow. Even the few lingering heretics in far southern NovRodi, out on the borders of the Tabor and Arkmandrii lands, refused to accept that.

The old woman . . . Kiara sighed and growled a little. She was old, very old. Godown might claim her soon, may the saints grant it not be too soon, and Pawl did not want to finish learning how to rule. Kiara read books about the different governments of Colplatschki. Kiara argued silently with the writers and people who tried to explain why some things worked and other things didn’t and what might be better. Pawl played with two rooms full of toy soldiers and cannons and marched around with real soldiers and tried to act as if he were a Frankonian general, not the crown prince of NovRodi. Empress Molly Olga had fussed at him once then turned her attention elsewhere. Did she not see that her heir’s preferences had upset some very powerful nobles in court? No, because she didn’t want to see. She had other matters in mind, like her comforts and managing the challenge in the west.

And Kiara understood the need for another son, truly she did. Pjtor had passed the first years of danger but the summer complaint could strike at any age, and winter coughs carried off the young as well as the very old. And he was a boy, who would do boy things and accidents happened. Had not great Emperor Pjtor himself almost died after the cannon test went wrong when he was still young? Kiara made Godown’s sign, warding off the thought. She started to make St. Alice as well and caught herself. The priests were cracking down on dissenters again, with Empress Molly Olga’s blessing. Pawl didn’t care. If he went to liturgy once a month it was a wonder as great as a hwhale standing on its flippers and walking through the park. He still alternated between busy and gloomy.

I miss Jeffrey. No, I do not miss him, I miss the company of a man who likes me and who can teach me, or who treats me as more than an impediment to his other interests. Pawl, Godown forgive her, Pawl seemed less and less interested in her as a person, or even as the potential bearer of his children. She needed to have another son. She wanted to at least like the man who sired the child. If she could talk to him and not have him pat her on the head and tell her to be a good little woman, that would be better. Godown have mercy, but I think I am going to have to betray my vows in order to be true to what the empress wants. And I do not feel as horrified as I should, forgive me most holy Lord.

That evening Kiara attended the imperial court and watched all the men, especially the foreigners. Most she dismissed, especially the tall fellow in the corner who sounded as if he’d been born of a mule, without the mule’s manners and sense of decorum. If his taste in colors passed through his family line, NovRodi would be doomed.

Beside her, the empress inquired in a dangerous purr, “Your thoughts, child?”

“That the gentlemen in the corner, the one who seems to be speaking with Lord Mandrovic’s lady, is either color blind or in need of a new valet, most worthy imperial majesty. His garments are, ah, shall I say a daring combination of shades and patterns?”

The empress fluttered her fan and squinted at the individual in question. “Indeed, he resembles an accident in a dye works.” She sounded amused, and turned her attention elsewhere, chuckling at something one of the young men serving her said. The empress enjoyed flirting with the young, handsome men of court. Woe betide anyone, including Kiara, who showed any interest in one of her majesty’s current favorites.

Oh, who is that? He seems to be—never mind. She caught a glimpse of the stranger’s badge and lost all interest, at least in a possible companion. Kiara studied the Frankonian man’s face and way of moving, memorizing them. She tried to know all the ambassadors and trade representatives on sight, just in case one approached her. He was handsome enough, and fair of coloring, but she would never stoop to entertaining a Frankonian in her office, let alone her bed. She let her gaze wander to other interesting sights, frowning a touch when she caught a glimpse of Pawl with that unpleasant Androv woman. Kiara could her her laughing over the sound of the musicians and of a score and more of conversations among the people in the great dancing hall. Ugh. She has no moderation in anything, including dress. If she inhales, she may hit someone with that bosom.

Not until the fourth dance did Kiara find anyone of even passing interest. As per tradition she and Pawl danced the first dance, leading the other couples in order of rank through a slow, formal grand march and quadrille. They also danced the third selection, a quick and complicated three-step that required the dancers’ full concentration and that left neither breath nor mind for anything else. Kiara sat for the next one, fanning even though cool air came in the part-open windows. Couples turned and swirled in a slow three-step, and a graceful young man with reddish-brown hair and pale eyes went past. He moved well enough to make the young Miss Landis seem light on her feet and coordinated. Godown bless her, she’s lovely but has no sense of music. Even Pawl dances better than she does. The young man wore blue and brown and carried himself like a soldier. Kiara memorized him, then returned to watching the entire gathering for a while.

The next afternoon the young man appeared in Pawl’s court. He waited patiently as Pawl laughed at a crude comment one of the younger men made about Lady Poliko and Miss Landis. “Ah, Captain Eklund I believe?”

He bowed. “You name me right, most imperial highness. My credentials.” He presented Pawl with something written on heavy paper with a dark blue seal and dark blue ribbon.

“Gerald Martin Eklund, cavalry for Duke Montoya, then service with the Imperial Free City of New Herbstadt and A’asterdee.” Pawl studied the young man closely, as did Kiara. “What brings you here?”

“I wish to learn more of the world, and to see what opportunities for service exist for a younger son, imperial highness.” He spoke with very little accent, Kiara noticed.

Pawl returned the discharge and character. “Come campaign season, Godown willing, opportunities always exist. The western border,” he waved in a vaguely westward direction. “Have you fought in the forests?”

“Not yet, imperial highness. The Turkowi and,” he hesitated for a fraction of a moment. “Others prefer to fight in the open as most men do.”

“Hmm.” Pawl grunted, then pointed to Kiara. “My wife, who thinks she knows too much. Comes from Hämäl.” Gerald Elkund bowed to her and she inclined her head, acknowledging his courtesy. Pawl pointed out the other main figures of his court, then returned to critiquing some of the women in the larger imperial court. Capt. Eklund found a place off to the side and stood quietly, observing much as Kiara did.

Kiara watched Eklund for two weeks. He did not approach her, but neither did he approach any of the other women in Pawl’s train, either. The maids fluttered at him and he responded in kind, but nothing came of it that she could see.

“What do you hear of Capt. Eklund?” Kiara asked Borissa one afternoon as she was dressing for a formal imperial court banquet.

“That he has caught the eye of several ladies but favors none, my lady.” Borissa stopped and moved so that she stood exactly behind Kiara. “My lady, how does the underlacing feel?”

Kiara leaned a bit left and right. “Off balance.” She tried to bend forward a few centimeters. “Yes, too tight at the base, I believe.”

“Mmm, that’s what I thought. One moment, my lady.” Borissa undid the complicated lacing and adjusted the tight-woven cords, quickly re-fastening everything. “Now, my lady?”

Kiara bent, leaned, and breathed deep. “Much better. Thank you.” She felt a cool finger running along the lower edge of the under-bodice. “Had it begun chafing already?”

“Yes, my lady, I can feel a warm spot. Perhaps the next underbodice should have a tiny patch of that light felt on the edges of the lacing panel, as we used on the winter underbodices?” Practiced hands tugged the overdress into place across Kiara’s shoulders, smoothing any wrinkles across the back. Borissa returned to face Kiara. The narrow faced maid studied her work, then stepped to the side as two junior maids began lacing the front of the dress, one holding the embroidered “floating” underpanel in place as the other fastened the sides of the bodice together. “It is said that Capt. Eklund as rebuffed two rather forward inquiries as to the availability of his attentions and favors. But also that he does not, ah, lean to the forest side.”

So he is not one of those who are attracted to men instead of women. And no one else has claimed him. Kiara smiled to herself. Then we shall see if he is as interesting as he appears at the moment. This time she would be the hunter, not the pseudo-deer.

She began stalking Eklund that very evening. Not overtly, no, but she generously granted him two dances following the meal, and allowed him to bring her a fresh glass of cool wine. He danced as well as she’d thought, and kept his eyes on her own, mostly. The costume favored by Empress Molly Olga left little of court ladies’ endowments to the imagination, and if Eklund glanced at Kiara’s chest a few times, so did every other man on Godown’s created world. They were men, after all. Quick appreciative glances harmed no one, unlike—

Slap Kiara and everyone else heard a fan hitting flesh, followed by a masculine, “Hey!”

The entire court turned to the sound. Young Lord Karlinov bore a red mark on the side of his face. The shape that exactly matched the back of Miss Poliko’s fan. “I am not that sort of woman, my lord,” the dark haired, almond-eyed woman stated, her voice carrying to the corners of the great room.

“Then why did you laugh? You light-skirted snip.”

Capt. Eklund started to move but Kiara laid her hand on his arm. She murmured, “No, Captain, wait. This has been coming for some time and Lord Poliko will deal with it.”

As they watched, a very large man appeared beside Miss Poliko. “Is there a problem, child?”

“Not unless my lord wishes to make it so. His hands and eyes strayed. I objected. He did not move his hand when asked so I reinforced my request.”

Eklund leaned closer and whispered, “He is known, imperial highness?”

“Yes.”

Young Karlinov flushed, the red hiding the mark. “I merely complimented her dress and was showing how she might adjust the neckline—”

Lord Poliko stepped between his daughter and the noble. “We will discuss this elsewhere.” The growl carried under the music. “One, two, three.”

Karlinov did not wait for four, and departed the room at a brisk walk, not quite running but certainly moving more rapidly than usual. Poliko watched him, spoke to his daughter, then bowed to the imperial dais and followed the young man.

Kiara decided to enlighten Eklund. “By the rules of court, if the father or brother reaches five and the supposed offender remains where he stands, it is considered a challenge to the family’s honor and place in court, requiring a formal response and can have serious consequences.”

“Ah. Thank you for informing me, most gracious imperial highness.” He bowed to her.

“You are welcome. A little knowledge in the right place can be worth more than precious furs.” She dismissed him not long after and danced with old Karlinov. The senior noble seemed unconcerned about his heir’s rapid departure and Kiara did not mention it either.

By late spring, Capt. Eklund and her imperial highness began riding together in the mornings. Empress Molly Olga found him “rural,” which her niece-in-law took to mean he did not recognize that she was flirting with him or was too intimidated to respond with the proper level of interest for the empress’s tastes. Kiara found him refreshing. And riding precluded any possibility for gossip, because as everyone knew, no one could do anything improper on horseback, wild tales of the Harriers and some cavalry soldiers’ boasts notwithstanding. Pawl rode as well but spent more time drilling his soldiers and copying the latest things from Frankonia. That concerned Kiara but she held her peace and tried to be a good dutiful wife when possible.

A light misty almost-rain kept Pawl and his favorites inside, marching soldiers up and down the battlefield taking up an enormous table in what had been one of the lesser dancing rooms. Kiara had asked him for permission to go riding, and he’d ordered Eklund to go along, perhaps as a sign of disfavor. Or because he was the first man Pawl’s eyes found, more likely. That suited Kiara very well, and she led the way out of the palace. She rode a dapple gelding that had been retired from the cavalry with ring-shin. Kiara had claimed him, ordered the grooms to treat him with sour wine dregs and warm wraps, and now he could trot and canter again for short distances. Eklund had a testy bay gelding that preferred to work as little as possible, and Kiara smiled in sympathy. They rode past the riding park, currently in use by one of the cavalry units preparing to move south to Muskava and then to the plains, and went instead to the great park surrounding Emperor Pjtor’s smaller summer palace. The empress ignored it, but Kiara found it charming and hoped she could convince Pawl to let her use it.

The heavy leaves of the big trees kept most of the mist away, and Eklund rode well. Kiara watched him with the bay, admiring his steady hands and firm seat. He did not abuse the horse but the bay could not loaf as he preferred, either. Pawl . . . Kiara sighed. Half the horses in the stable had iron jaws because of her husband’s hard hands and brutal temper. They followed the trail through the woods to a group of small gardens, each with different colors of flowers in them. Kiara had granted Eklund the favor of calling her lady, and he asked, “My lady, who made these?”

“Besides Godown?” She smiled. “They were planned by Empress Alsice, Emperor Pjtor’s wife, and their second daughter, the one who later went into a convent. I am told that originally, each group also shifted color from darker to lighter, outside to inside, but the gardeners here are not so many as before, and so they cannot tend to as much as finely. These are still lovely,” she gestured with her riding stick.

“Indeed, my lady. It is a good way to allow each group to show its beauty without overpowering the others.” He smiled, showing slightly crooked but healthy teeth. “Too many colors in too small of a space can overwhelm instead of compliment.”

“Indeed.”

He looked at the garden, then back at her, “And, if I might be so bold, my lady, a single perfect flower can overshadow an entire bouquet of her colorful cousins.”

Kiara smiled in turn. “Truly, a poet rides beside me as well as a man of war.” He flushed a little and she relented. “And I agree. Major Orvalle’s valet must weep in his pillow of a night.”

“So I have heard, my lady.” They rode a little farther, to a place where a gap in the trees allowed them to see an arm of the sea. The mist turned the sky and sea into one silvery grey distance, and she sighed, feeling better. “You, your pardon if I pry, but you are from the northern sea cities, my lady?”

“Yes, from Hämäl. In late summer mist can come in, much like this, but the coast is steeper, with cliffs that allow watchers to see ships coming from a great distance. Hämäl was founded on one of the few places with a wide, gentle beach, a sheltered harbor, and fresh water of good quality.”

“Is it true, my lady, that the sea can turn to ice?”

“Not entirely. Ice breaks off the snow mountains to the north and floats down in fall, then the winter storms freeze the spray into larger chunks until the ice forms a great mass and blocks the ships in or out of port. The sailing season is a bit longer than here,” she pointed down, “but that is in a good year. We did not have the storms of New Rodi and the White Sea, but ice can crack a ship’s hull and no one know it until too late.” At least that was what Kiara understood.

He shook his head.

“You doubt me?”

“No, my lady, only my mind as I try to picture such a thing. I am from the edge of the Great Dividing Range, on crown property once granted to Princess Elizabeth von Sarmas. Ice is what falls from the sky in a bad year, breaking trees and making chores more difficult than usual, not something that floats on the sea.”

Kiara shivered. Muskava had endured one such storm but that had not lasted long and had only made venturing outdoors exciting when the ice began melting off the slate roof in great sheets like glass. “Are the mountains like what the pictures show?”

He chuckled. “I have not seen any pictures, so I do not know, my lady.”

“Then I shall remedy that and indulge my curiosity, time and Prince Pawl permitting.”

After the next Holy Day, Kiara met Eklund at the door to the smaller open section of the library in the imperial palace in New Rodi. She unlocked the door and bowed a little, acknowledging the elderly clerk waiting beside a book-laden table. “Thank you, Master Lind.”

“Eh, most gracious highness, young sir, don’t damage the books,” he creaked. “You have any food or drink with ye?” He cared for nothing aside from the safety of his precious books, and Kiara could not take offense at him. He’d been in the library since Great Pjtor brought the first books to New Rodi, or so rumor claimed. Kiara suspected he’d come in the same crate as the books.

“No, Master Lind. I know the rules.” She and the captain stood by the table and she opened one of the volumes, turning pages with care until she found one with a picture of the mountains. “Like this?”

Eklund chuckled and pushed a bit of hair out of his eyes as he leaned forward to look. “No, my lady, those are far too steep and bare. I don’t think even the mountain leapers of Sarmas could live in those.” Kiara turned a few more pages and he said, “Stop.”

“Zzzznxxx.” The loud snore startled them and they looked at the corner, by the rear-feed stove. Master Lind dozed in his chair. Kiara covered her mouth with one hand, smothering a giggle.

“This is my home,” Eklund said, lowering his voice so he wouldn’t wake the old man. “It does look like this, but with the trees starting up here,” he pointed higher on the slope. “Hills run almost to the mountains, then drop into a nice sheltered valley before the main flank of the Dividing Range starts. It’s prime shahma country, and the crown has kept Princess Sarmas’s shahma farm going as well as raising some sheep and mules.” He seemed to look into the distance. “She raised the most magnificent mules, strong but thrifty for their size. Not like the great mud horses from the south.” He looked a bit wistful.

“Do you miss it?”

He moved his hand a centimeter or two, touching hers without noticing. “A little, my lady. It is great country to be from, my lady, not not easy to make a living on, unless you are a shahma.”

She covered his hand with hers and chuckled. “I can see where that might make things tricky. I am told that grass and herbs are what food eats.”

He chuckled as well, then flushed as she patted his hand. “Ah my lady,” he kept his voice quiet, but she put one finger over her lips and turned the page to the next engraving. “The Bergenlands. The Great Dividing Range is higher than the Triangle Range, or so it is said. I would not care to test either in winter, my lady.”

They looked at several more pictures and plates before Kiara said, “Thank you for your time, Captain Eklund. This has been most enlightening, and I appreciate your patience and attention.” She caressed his hand again.

This time he took it, kissed the back, and bowed. “The honor is mine, most gracious lady, that you find my feeble memory of interest. Perhaps I might be able to entertain you again, although I fear you have plumbed the depths of my knowledge.”

Oh, I like this young man. Yes, let us see if he takes the next step in the dance, shall we? “A man of the world always has more to offer, Captain, and a wise woman learns from all who are willing to teach, no matter the subject. It is good to be well-rounded, yes?”

He smiled and seemed to be breathing a little faster as he said, “Ah, that is, yes, my lady, a variety of knowledge can be helpful in many situations.”

A snort from the keeper of treasures made both of them chuckle a little. Kiara spoke louder as she and Gerald both stepped sideways away from each other, “Thank you. That does clarify some things that the map confused.”

“I am glad to be of service, most gracious imperial highness.”

“You may go.”

He bowed, gave her a hint of a wink, and departed. Kiara closed the book and moved it to one side, then opened another, this with a copy of an ancient Lander map of all of the continent, and found the Great Dividing Range. She studied how it ran. I wonder if Godown smoothed out the middle of the continent and piled the bits on the edges, like a child making dirt forts? The mountains certainly look as if He did, both ranges running north to south. Kiara smiled at the conceit, closed the book and thanked the library’s guardian for his time and care.

Kiara drew Gerald closer and closer as spring turned to summer. Empress Molly Olga announced that there would be no additional campaign in the south other than the one already staffed and provisioned, but Prince Pawl insisted that Capt. Eklund remain for another season and provided him with housing funds. The empress went on a retreat and Pawl marched his pet regiment out to hold a mock battle, ordering his court and Kiara to remain behind. Gerald, recovering from a bout of the summer flux brought on by bad fish, stayed as well. Now, I believe, is my chance. He is kind, attractive, interesting, and respectful. And is not interested in any of the other women.

Kiara and her maids took advantage of the empress’s extended absence to clean, repair, and sort all her usual dresses and bodices. Instead Kiara wore the traditional, lighter dress, lose and far easier to keep clean and sweet in summer. Gerald and several of the other foreign men seemed bemused by the change, because once Kiara shifted, all the other women did as well, and became rather livelier, taking advantage of the implied lack of formality to enjoy the gardens and parks, dancing the summer ring dances, and ignoring some of the more onerous points of etiquette. Kiara cautioned one or two but the rest behaved within limits.

And so it came to pass that Kiara and Gerald strolled through the garden during the long twilight, comparing summer memories. Then he explained some things about the governance of the Eastern Empire that had always puzzled her. So wrapped in discussion were they that he failed to notice that they’d wandered far from the others, into a secluded and cooler part of the garden, with several benches and full of scented plants. “Thank you, Captain. It fascinates me that such different ways of thinking about governance can arise on this world.”

“You are most welcome, my lady. I apologize if I bore you.”

She turned and faced him, smiling. She matched his height. “No, you do not bore me at all, Captain. In fact, I find our conversations most stimulating.” I have led. Will you follow?

He froze for an instant. “Stimulating, my lady?” He ventured a step closer.

“Most stimulating.” She smiled and eased forward as well, resting one hand on his chest.

Gerald’s eyes grew larger and he kicked his lips. “Ah, your pardon my lady, but I am not entirely certain how to proceed with our, ah, conversation.”

A glance down confirmed that at least some of him shared her interest. “Then allow me to lead for a moment.” She placed one of his hands on the small of her back. “Like so. And the other,” she turned it palm up and used it to cup her breast. “Like so.” Then she kissed him. The hand on her back seemed to move of its own volition and she returned the favor.

This time, she taught and the gentleman studied. Gerald learned quickly indeed, and Kiara decided that she’d keep him, if he were willing.

He was.

#

By midwinter Kiara knew that her seduction had born fruit, or would in another few months, Godown willing. She did wonder if Pawl had suspected that something might be going on because the night he returned from his “military training” he had joined with her as husband and wife. Kiara preferred Gerald’s touch. He lacked Pawl’s experience but also lacked her husband’s rather perfunctory attitude toward her and toward physical congress. Although, as Kiara considered matters and walked the hallway as the midwife had ordered, her imperial majesty had probably ordered Pawl to do his marital duty or risk having his allowance cut. How many men have to be ordered to sleep with their wives, if they are not followers of St. Jenna? This would be silly if it were not so vital to the stability and success of NovRodi.

Which led to another thought—why no St. Jenna here? Of all the terms she’d heard used to describe someone who lusted after their own sex, “he favors the forest over the plains” or sea had to be one of the stranger. Yes, it made physical sense given male anatomy, but still, what an odd, around the topic way to describe something. Was Pawl one of those? Was that why he’d not done anything until after she and Jeffrey? Or had he been ignorant of the basic facts? As if I am one to speculate. How in the name of all the saints did I manage to be so ignorant of the basics of sex? Well, mother probably told the maids never to mention it, she didn’t mention it, and once I got here, everyone assumed that I already knew because everyone does. “If you are a girl,” she told the active little person inside her belly, “I will tell you before you have your courses.”

If the person now kicking her were a girl, she’d probably have the child start dance lessons as soon as she walked, just to direct that energy somewhere. Kiara patted her belly. “Easy there, little one, calm down.” If it was a girl, the empress would be disappointed. Yes, well there seemed to be nothing Kiara could do to determine her children’s sex. It was not as if she could go to a market and pick one. Kiara had a sudden vision of Godown presenting a couple with a list of options, with children scattered around them like a master craftsman in his workshop surrounded by projects and examples. She clapped her hands over her mouth to keep from laughing aloud. As it was the maids except for Borissa tisked over her ways and her continuing to read men’s books. But since she carried a child for the empire, they did not try to stop her.

Thanks be to Godown that I am also excused from the fasts. On the contrary, her maids urged her to eat more. Borissa and the dowager Lady Alicorn had told her in dreadful detail about the lean times before the re-conquest of the southern plains, when even the imperial court ran out of food some winters. After that Kiara understood why the church in NovRodi encouraged so many fast days and fast seasons. Godown did not want His children to starve, and better that most should hunger than for all to die. The library in Muskava included a chronicle from just after the Harriers’ first attacks describing how brother had turned on brother and parents had given their children away, or had put them out in the cold after dosing them with poppy so they died in their sleep rather than wasting away from slow hunger. She shivered at the memory of the account, so factual and plain. That had convinced her of the truth in it, and she’d spent the next day praying for the souls of parents who had to make such terrible choices, and for the innocent children who hungered. Fasting remained good for the soul but was no longer necessary for survival of the body. And pregnant and nursing women had always been exempt from the most strenuous fasts.

“Most gracious mistress, you have walked enough for this day,” the assistant midwife said.

Good. I want to sit down, prop my feet on a pillow and nap beside the stove like one of the cats. “Thank you.” A chill bit of draft swirled around her ankles. Well, better gravid in winter than in summer. Or was it the other way, because of the problem of summer complaint? I’m not going to ask. The child would come in due time as Godown willed, and that was that.

Six weeks after the birth of her daughter, Kiara found a few moments alone with Gerald Eklund. It was not as hard as she had thought it might be. Once again the empress had taken the child, although this time she’d had the grace to wait until after the maids and midwife had cleaned the baby and swaddled her. After all, the baby was just a girl. A healthy girl with a very good set of lungs and a healthy appetite as it proved. For the first month it had taken Kiara and the wetnurse both to satisfy her. Borissa observed that, “It is said that all spring babies are born hungry and try to make up for what they missed.”

“This one certainly does, I do believe.” Kiara carefully rested little Molly Olga Pawla on her shoulder. Her daughter fussed and Kiara patted her until the excess came out. “If you ate slower you’d feel better,” she told the wee one, who blinked at her and fell asleep. Kiara handed the baby over to one of the nurses to return to the baby-chamber, a snug room well away from any drafts and that could easily be kept warm in winter.

That phase had passed and now the newest Svendborg contented herself with one nurse. Kiara returned to her husband’s court, danced with those who sought her hand, and began to hunger for Gerald’s touch once more. It appeared that he shared her interest, and they rode out one spring morning, taking the low jumps in the riding park. She took them with a little effort, and her stomach and back cautioned that small steps would be best. So she watched as he took the higher course. The bay balked once but Gerald kept his seat, started again, and this time cleared the wall without difficulty. “See, silly, no horse eating monsters hide there,” he told the bay as he rode over to Kiara.

“Ah, Captain, but will he remember?”

Eklund patted the red neck in front of him and sighed. “Likely not, imperial highness. Only mules have memories, and I had the bruises to attest to that, when I was younger. Father rented a few fields and raised saddle mules as well as working mules.”

Kiara nodded. “I have heard of such beasts, but never saw one. It is said that the Eastern Empire is jealous of its mules.” She urged the dapple grey into a walk so they could return to the palace.

“Not entirely, imperial highness. They are sold abroad, but they cost a great deal of money, more than most people are willing to spend on something that does not reproduce itself.” He turned a little as one of the young ladies of the merchant class rode past. “Unlike that mare, for example, imperial highness.”

“I had not thought of it that way, Captain. An excellent point.” After they had ridden half-way back to the palace, Kiara observed, “I too remember things.”

He seemed to straighten up, as if a cavalry man could ever bring himself to slump while in the saddle. “A good memory is a valuable thing, imperial highness.”

“So are good memories.” He did not respond so she added, “I enjoy revisiting them on occasion, but new experiences are also desirable.”

As she had hoped, had prayed, he took the hint. “And memories of desire pale before true experience.” A guardsman riding the other direction saluted and he added, “or so the poets claim. Perhaps, imperial highness, you will find opportunity for new experiences.”

She did, with him. The park around the summer palace became one of their favorite spots to ride to, and the gardeners trimmed back overgrown hedges and branches to reveal a jump course there, one better suited to her abilities. As before, Pawl claimed his husbandly right, although she did not become pregnant until midwinter this time.

The boy greatly resembled Kiara but with Gerald’s eyes. They were also Great Pjtor’s eyes, and when Kiara presented the boy to Empress Molly Olga upon her majesty’s return from a spiritual retreat, she did so with the words, “Truly the blood of his Imperial Majesty Pjtor the First runs strong in his heirs.”

The empress studied the baby, his mother, and looked past Kiara to Pawl, who stared out the window. Then she smiled and took the bundle. “Indeed it does. My nephew has done well. As have you.” Kiara curtsied and stepped out of the way as the old woman, steadied by two footmen, paraded the child around the room, showing him off. Kiara turned, following with her eyes, and caught Pawl smirking at her.

Two days later he called her to a special outing, leading the way to a pavilion in the gardens. There she found a meal set out for four. Kiara’s heat began to sink as Antonia Karlov walked up the two steps, simpered at Pawl and stared down her nose at Kiara. A confused Capt. Gerald Eklund trailed behind, his face flushing then going pale as he realized what had transpired.

“I know.” Pawl gloated. “Now you know that I know. Let us have no more hiding, shall we.” He patted Antonia Karlov on the shoulder. “You have yours and I have mine, and I like mine better anyway. She doesn’t poke her oversize nose into my affairs.” He giggled. “Sit, sit, don’t waste food.” He giggled again, a strange sound that made Kiara and Gerald share a concerned look.

From then on, Pawl introduced Miss Karlov as his official mistress, although not when the empress could hear. Kiara and Gerald acted more circumspectly. Pawl did not seem to care if anyone challenged his wife’s naming of him as the father of her children, but Kiara did, for the sake of the empire. Gerald agreed and told her so one night as they lay in her bed. After her second pregnancy Pawl had given her a separate set of rooms from his, and she suspected that his relationship with the Karlov niece had begun then. Now she and Gerald shared a bed rather than a bench in the garden. He stroked her arm and shoulder, then caressed her breast. “My lady, has anyone challenged the paternity of your children?”

“No, and the empress has made it clear that she thinks Adam Pawlson Geert Boris Landis is just like Great Pjtor in every way, except size.” She chuckled. “I doubt anyone will gainsay her. And it could well be her grandfather’s blood, since I am told that Pawl’s sister had dark hair, dark eyes, and would probably have been tall and sturdy had she lived.” She’d died of the summer complaint and a cut foot that developed wound rot. Godown have mercy, but if someone finds a way to heal or prevent wound rot and child-bed deaths, it will be even better than regaining the ability to travel fast over distances.

She felt him relaxing beside her. “That is good to know.”

“Yes, it is. Things are unsettled enough as it is without that stirring up that sort of trouble.”

“Selah, may Godown Himself hear your words my lady.”

“Ameen.”

(C) 2017 Alma T. C. Boykin All Rights Reserved

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