closed in

Castle Anvard

Megren slips into the kennels, face bright with cold.

Lanisen is playing a game of toss-and-retrieve with about ten hounds at once. It’s a little bit noisy.

Megren stands back against the door when she sees the chaos.

Lanisen throws the bone the full length of the kennel, sending the mad barking rush to the other side of the room, and turns toward the door. “Hey!” he says, almost shouting to be heard.

Megren says, “Um, I can come back–”

Lanisen says, “What? No, no, what’s up?”

Megren says, “Wanted to know if you were up for a ride.”

Lanisen says, “A– Oh, um.” He is briefly distracted by the swarm of returning dogs and stoops to accept the slobbery bone, then throws it again. “Where to?”

Megren lifts her shoulders. “Anywhere.”

Lanisen pauses, tipping his head at her. “All right,” he answers.

Megren says, “If you have time.”

Lanisen says, “No, it’s, yeah, I have time. Let me–” He stops again as the dogs swarm back and detatches himself gently, crossing to the hearth to get his stone.

Megren picks up the discarded rope and tosses it tentatively.

Every hound in the kennel decides to be Megren’s new best friend, effective now.

A startled, not-entirely-panicked-but-preparing-to-be-there, yelp of laughter emerges from the swarming pile.

Lanisen turns back toward them quickly at the noise and whistles sharply. The hounds are distracted, and he makes a half-concerned, half-laughing apologetic face at Megren. “You all right?”

Megren sits up, looking a little embarrassed. “Yeah.” She reaches out and runs her hand along the length of the nearest dog.

Lanisen says, getting his coat, “You can, you can just say ‘no’, real firm, and they’ll back off.”

Megren says, “That doesn’t work; they can tell I don’t mean it.”

Lanisen snorts out loud. “Oh,” he says, coming over to show her something on his coat. “Look, Mara made me a pocket.” There is a little pouch exactly the right size to hold his clay stone sewn inside the shoulder of his coat.

Megren draws in a delighted breath. “Oh, I should have thought of that!”

Lanisen adds happily, “/And/ I have two now, so I keep one with me and one in the fireplace and switch ’em out when one gets cold.”

Megren says, “So I shan’t hear a complaint from you ever again, then. That’s the end of old man Lanisen, killed by a pocket and a pair of stones.”

Lanisen raises his clay stone in a salute to that. He puts on his coat and tucks the stone inside its pocket. “Where’re we goin’?”

Megren asks, “Forest or mountain?”

Lanisen says, “I dunno, it was your idea.”
Lanisen says, “Forest, all right.” He wraps his scarf around his neck and stops by the shelf to take a quick, grimacing swallow of willow-bark tincture.

Megren asks, “Should we prep the horses and then double back here for you to switch stones?”

Lanisen agrees, “Sounds good, yeah, thanks.”

Megren casts her glance around over the dogs. “Anybody you want to take with?”

Lanisen considers. “Tohol,” he decides. “If that’s all right.”

Megren nods.

Lanisen says, “We’ll get him when we come back?”

Megren says, “Sure.”

Lanisen nods, beginning for the door. “No, stay,” he says to the half-dozen hounds who trot along with him.

Megren grins. “Like a mother duck.”

Lanisen makes a face at her. “Come on, let’s go.”

Megren opens the door lifting her knee to ward off any dogs that might try to slip through while Lanisen makes his way out.

Lanisen has to repeat, “No, /no/,” several times before he actually escapes.

Megren looks vindicated as she skips out after him.

Lanisen takes a deep breath of the chilly air as they cross the ward, and goes immediately to Maestro’s stall once they reach the stable.

Megren checks on Sir Darrin’s horses and fixes a few things before pulling out Swiftly to be saddled.

Lanisen works quietly to get the gelding ready, still slow with the trickier buckles, but having a far easier time of it than before. He glances at Megren and Swiftly when he’s finished.

Megren is slightly behind because of the other chores, but she catches up pretty fast.

Lanisen says, “I’ll go get Tohol while you’re finishin’?”

Megren nods at him from over Swiftly’s withers.

Lanisen slips out. He returns a minute later, Tohol running gamboling circles around him, and halts in the doorway to check on Megren’s progress.

Megren is just finishing checking Swiftly’s trappings by the time he returns.

Lanisen tells Tohol to stay and goes to fetch Maestro. The hound sits, his tail thumping rhythmically against the ground.

Megren peers around Swiftly to see if Tohol actually listens.

Tohol’s tongue is hanging out. He quivers and whines when Lanisen mounts, and gets up to run in a small tight circle in the doorway, but doesn’t actually leave the place he’s been told to stay.

Megren grins, and unclips Swiftly’s lead to step into the stirrup and mount up.

Lanisen waits for Megren to take the lead, Maestro sidling a little in place.

Megren trots out toward the ward, glancing over her shoulder to see if he’s in place.

Lanisen follows her, clicking his tongue at Tohol. The hound leaps forward joyously, but is too well-mannered to bark.

In the Archenland Forest
Eastern Archenland

You stand in the middle of a forest. The trees are broadly spaced, the ground beneath you uncluttered by underbrush, giving the gently rolling landscape an almost parklike feel. Dappled light filters down through the branches, leaves shimmering and translucent against the sunlight. A few birds flit by overhead while others sing in the trees, providing a merry counterpoint to the whispering of the wind. To the south, mountains separate Archenland from the Southern Desert. The forest continues in all other directions.

Megren trots along the town road, slowing to a walk to enter the forest. Old snow lies clumped under the trees, pocked where branches have dropped their heavy loads on warm days. The snow is crusty near the trunks and in the open spaces, where it’s been undisturbed, but below the crust its turned to a dirty slush that splashes over the horses’ hooves.

Lanisen glances from side to side as they go. Tohol is getting gloriously filthy but doesn’t seem to mind.

Megren’s shoulders drop a little as they pass below the dripping boughs.

Lanisen gets dripped on and mutters about it a little bit.

Megren lifts her hood, but she seems less eager now.

Lanisen squints one eye at her thoughtfully. He takes a breath as if to speak and break the odd silence, but he pulls his lips between his teeth and keeps quiet for the moment.

Megren passes through some brush and pulls Swiftly up. “It’s not very pretty,” she apologizes.

Lanisen draws to a halt next to her. “Everything can’t be pretty all the time,” he reasons.

Megren says, “I don’t like this weather.”

Lanisen says, “Spring’s comin’.”

Megren says, “A month yet, if it’s a mild year.”

Lanisen says, “That ain’t so long.” He glances at her sidelong after a moment, his forehead furrowed slightly with worry.

Megren slips down off Swiftly. “There’s some good branches out this way, do you mind if I collect some to bring my da?”

Lanisen says, “Sure, yeah, that’s fine.” He carefully dismounts, wincing slightly at the drop, and loops Maestro’s reins over a branch so that he can follow and help.

Megren glances up and takes Lanisen’s lead, tying Swiftly off with a decent head so that he can move a little. She picks up a bough. “You know your trees?”

Lanisen says, “Um. Not well.”

Megren lifts it where he can see. “See these fissures? That’s the kind of bark you are looking for.”

Lanisen looks closely and nods, glancing around for a place to start. “What’s it called?” he asks, moving toward a likely looking branch.

Megren hands it to him. “Walnut. You can feel how heavy it is, too. You want about that width, and no more than a thumb’s length shorter.”

Lanisen hefts it in his left hand interestedly. “It burns a long time?” he guesses.

Megren gives a surprised breath of laughter. “Um, sure, it’s fine for burning if you’re in a jam. Walnut’s good wood, though, you want to keep it for working.”

Lanisen says, “Oh.” He picks up a branch and sets it down again, judging it too spindly. “What’s he make?”

Megren says, “Arrows. And shafts, for the fletcher, when he’s got spare time. If you find one about,” she eyes him speculatively. “About a foot taller than you, let me see.””

Lanisen nods, his eyes on the branches sharpening with this new information. “How come did you want to come ridin’, if you don’t like this weather?” he asks to keep her talking.

Megren says, “It’s the sort of weather that’s just as bad indoors as out. At least outside the damp’s got places to go instead of just hanging around.”

Lanisen tilts his head a little to concede this. “Like into boots!”

Megren laughs. “Well.”

Lanisen grins, bending to pick up another branch. Tohol trots between them importantly, carrying his own stick, and sits down on a reasonably dry patch of ground to get to gnawing.

Megren gets a pretty good stack going in not a great deal of time.

Lanisen asks, “What’re you wantin’ the tall one for?”

You say, “He’ll want a new bow by the end of next summer, I think.”

Lanisen picks up one end of a long branch and hauls it awkwardly upright with one hand, measuring it against himself. He looks over at Megren with his eyebrows raised questioningly.

Megren eyes the branch and tilts her head. “Mm… yeah, it’s all right. Bit crooked. If there’s nothing else better we’ll take it.”

Lanisen nods and leans it up against a tree where it’ll be easily retrieved, then returns to gathering.

Megren bundles up her little stack and ties it up behind her saddle.

Lanisen picks up a few more likely looking branches and follows her back to the horses.

Megren holds out her hands for the bundle. “Here, I’ll put it on Swiftly so you don’t have to do /all/ my chores for me.”

Lanisen snorts amiably, but hands it over. He wipes his hands absently on his coat.

Megren eyes the large branch again, screwing up her face.

Lanisen glances from her face to the branch and back. “We can keep lookin’,” he suggests.

Megren says, “No, it’s… it’s only a middling wood, is the thing. But if he gets a good collection he can choose.”

Lanisen asks, “Middling wood?”

Megren says, “Yes, like… yew or ironbark, that’s good wood, and, you know, aspen or something, that’s bad wood, walnut’s middling. The good side of middling, but,” she lifts her shoulders. “Just was trying to decide if it was worth dragging behind Swiftly.”

Lanisen says, “Aahh.” He settles his weight and waits for her to choose.

Megren says, “…Not worth putting off a good cider, I think.”

Lanisen agrees easily, “All right.” He heads back toward Maestro. “Was there anywhere else you were wantin’ to go, or?”

Megren says, “Just wanted out for a while. Kairyn and I used to go sometimes, but it’s become less since Maire came to the castle.”

Lanisen draws Maestro’s reins back over his head. He puts his foot into the stirrup and tries to heave himself up, but has to abandon this attempt quickly. He glances around for something to use as a step, and draws Maestro by the bridle toward a fallen tree.

Megren starts toward him to help, but, seeing that he’s perfectly able to sustain himself, she lets him do as much.

Lanisen’s second attempt is more successful, and he lets out a satisfied breath once in the saddle.

Megren mounts up once he has. “Back?”

Lanisen says, “If you want.”

Megren nods. “I think so.”

Lanisen says, “All right.”

Megren clicks for Swiftly to move off.

Lanisen whistles for Tohol and follows her.

Castle Anvard

Megren slows up as they reenter the castle grounds, dismounting Swiftly outside the stables so she can push the door open and enter in. She hooks Swiftly to the saddling station rather than unsaddling him inside his stall, so that she can more easily pull off his cargo.

Lanisen follows her, dismounting with a wince and a hiss. He flexes his fingers and sets to unsaddling the gelding, stealing glances at Meg as he does so.

Megren says, “If you want to go grab your other stone, I can watch Maestro while you do.”

Lanisen says, “I’m all right ’til he’s settled.”

Megren watches him for a moment to check, but nods. “Fair enough.” She brings Swiftly’s saddle into the tack room and emerges with a pair of brushes and a lump of sugar. “Good boy, Swiftly, getting your hooves all sopping for us,” she says, delivering the horse a kiss between the eyes.

Lanisen carries the saddle to the tack room and stops to give it a quick wipe-down with a rag before he emerges for the rest of the gear. Once everything is off and squared away, he sets to rubbing Maestro down, using his left hand. He keeps half an eye on Megren, a little worried and puzzled furrow between his eyebrows.

Megren gives Swiftly a careful and thorough rub-down, but she’s pretty quick with the work, having both hands and the easy expertise of someone who does it every day.

Lanisen refocuses when he realizes he’s falling behind and finishes a little after Megren.

Megren has already fetched a pair of blankets by this time, and she hands him one for Maestro.

Lanisen murmurs thanks and settles it carefully over the gelding’s broad back, leading him into the stall. He stays a moment and strokes Maestro’s nose and neck before he lets himself out.

Megren does the same for Swiftly, emerging a little while later to pick up her bundle of lumber.

Lanisen asks, gesturing at the wood, “Are you goin’ now?”

Megren says, “Just bringing it up to my room. Have to stay the night if I went now.”

Lanisen says, “Mm. Yeah.” He glances at the door and the fading light outside.

Megren asks, “Should I fetch some cider on the way back down?”

Lanisen says, “Sure, if you want.”

Megren says, “Well, I definitely want something hot, but that doesn’t mean you have to participate if you’re off cider these days.”

Lanisen’s face breaks into a quick grin and he looks down. “Cider sounds fine.”

Megren nods, and hefts the wood bundle. “Good, that’s settled then. See you in a little.”

Lanisen echoes, “See you.” He heads out into the ward, rubbing his shoulder, but makes a turn to go through the inner gate instead of straight to the kennels.

Megren turns toward the tower, but catches sight of his detour and tilts her head curiously before ascending the rest of the way.

Castle Anvard

Lanisen has brought back a small pot full of soup from the kitchen, and it’s over the fire, warming. He is giving Tohol a thorough cleaning and drying, meanwhile.

Megren comes in carrying a flagon of cider. “Food,” she admires when she sees the pot.

Lanisen says, “It’s not hot yet, but it’s gettin’ there.”

Megren sets the cider down on the table and dumps herself unceremoniously into a chair. “Mm,” she says.

Lanisen tosses aside the rag and tousles Tohol’s ears before releasing him. He checks the soup, then retrieves his stone and swaps it for the old one. He pauses a moment, then asks, “You doin’ all right?”

Megren asks, “Hm?”

Lanisen shrugs.

Megren says, “Yeah. I’m still not used to a castle sometimes. Mostly I like it — drier and bigger and there’s always food and company. But it gets to feel too close sometimes, especially when the weather’s wrong.”

Lanisen makes a sympathetic noise and looks down.

Megren grabs a pair of cups and pours their cider, patting the table to indicate he should sit. “What about you, though?”

Lanisen asks, “What? I’m fine.” He pulls out a chair and sits, folding his arms on top of the table.

Megren pushes his cup toward him. “Sir Colin’s been gone a while now, do you feel the same?”

Lanisen accepts the cup and focuses his eyes on that. He pauses a second and then shakes his head slightly. “Same, as…?”

Megren pushes her mouth to the side. “I don’t know, I don’t want to tell you how you were feeling before. You seemed like you felt… off-balance, maybe. Or… or, I don’t know, I don’t want to tell you how you felt.”

Lanisen says, “Oh.” He doesn’t answer for a minute, turning his cup in a circle, small precise increments at a time. His face creases up briefly with a sort of tired discomfort. “I don’t, um. I dunno. It’s different now is all, just, it’s a new normal to get used to.”

Megren makes a thoughtful noise.

Lanisen doesn’t look at her.

Megren says, “I do wish you could be my squire.”

Lanisen goes still, except for a very slight backward swaying like a recoil from something unexpected and potentially dangerous. He seems briefly bewildered, and then one eye narrows and he lets out a small scoff, half-grinning wryly and glancing at her from the corner of his eye to acknowledge the joke.

Megren asks, “That terrible a prospect?”

Lanisen asks, “What, you’re serious?”

Megren says, “Not as unserious as all that, anyway.”

Lanisen shifts in his seat and glances at her again.

Megren glances away and says in a lighter voice, “Then I could /order/ you to go out in the forest with me.”

Lanisen looks down quickly and lets out a little breath of laughter. His forehead creases as he mulls this over.

Megren sips her cider.

Lanisen shifts again and says, dismissive and trying for levity, “Nobody in their right mind would want me for a squire.”

Megren blinks and frowns. “What?”

Lanisen lifts his shoulders and glances at her, half-smiling, and scoffs again lightly. He spreads his empty hands. “Come on.”

Megren’s right eye squints up like she’s trying to figure out what to do with this line of argument. “You’ve got a knight’s heart; that’s all anybody could ask for in a squire,” she finally says, the kind of certainty lining her voice that says she expects no disagreement.

Lanisen definitely doesn’t know what to do with that. His smile slips with uncertainty and he looks away, biting the inside of his lip. “Soup’s– prob’ly hot,” he says and gets up abruptly.

Megren lets him see to it.

Lanisen checks the pot and stirs the broth and is satisfied. He ladles out two bowls, fetches spoons, and carries everything carefully back to the table.

Megren takes her bowl and sniffs, making a contented sound. “Smells good.”

Lanisen makes an agreeing sort of noise and resumes his seat, hunching over his bowl.

Megren watches him for a moment before turning to her own bowl.

Lanisen, despite the good smells, only picks at his food.

Megren says, “I’m sorry if I said something out of place.”

Lanisen draws a breath and looks at her. “No, I–” He puts his elbows on the table and rubs both his hands over his face, then sits back in his chair. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to– I don’t know.”

Megren scrunches up her nose. “I did, I made something awkward.”

Lanisen shakes his head in denial, looking at his hands in his lap. “No, it’s me, I’m sorry.”

Megren sticks her tongue out. “I forgive you.”

Lanisen glances at her sidelong and grins faintly.

Megren asks, “Do you want to talk it out?”

Lanisen says, “Um.” He rubs the side of his face and laughs a little helplessly, uncomfortable. “I can’t– I can’t be a knight, I can’t be a knight.”

Megren squints an eye and then unravels, “Do you mean that you’d like to?”

Lanisen’s face creases up. “I don’t– No, it’s, I mean I /can’t/, I ain’t– knight material!”

Megren says, “What’s knight material.”

Lanisen moistens his lips and looks down briefly, frustrated and self-conscious. “I dunno exactly but somebody who can’t walk into a closet or down the main road without gettin’ spooked /ain’t it/.”

Megren says, “I don’t think Darius gets to decide who’s worth knighting and who’s not.”

Lanisen rubs the thumb of his left hand into the palm of his right and doesn’t answer.

Megren says, “You put people before yourself, Lanisen. Cass, Sir Colin. You do it even when you /are/ scared, sometimes. That’s what makes a knight. That’s how I figure it, anyway.”

Lanisen pushes one hand through his hair and exhales through his nose. “I don’t think that’s how the rest of the world figures it.”

Megren asks again, “You want to be a knight?”

Lanisen says, “It doesn’t /matter/, it’s not, it’s not practical, even– Sir Colin, when he took me on, that wasn’t so I could be a knight, it was so he could–”

Megren says, “So you do want to.”

Lanisen’s expression crumples slightly and he turns his face away. “I dunno; I don’t know,” he says in a lower voice.

Megren asks, “Does Sir Colin know? Does anybody?”

Lanisen shakes his head from side to side, unhappy. “No, no, ‘course not, it–” He takes a deep breath and looks at the ceiling. “I thought– for a little while, after– my pardon, and then Sir Colin, I thought I might find a way to– to give back, maybe make, make amends but then–”

Megren says, “Well. I don’t see why you couldn’t if you chose.”

Lanisen is silent.

Megren says, “If I’m ever a knight and you still want it, I’ll help you figure out what needs done.”

Lanisen doesn’t answer or look up, but he finally nods slightly, with the sort of reluctance that means he knows this is as close as he’ll get to winning this one.

Megren watches him for a long moment. “Your friendship means a lot to me, you know.”

Lanisen pulls his lips between his teeth and takes a breath that is not quite steady. “You too.”

Megren says, “I mean it.”

Lanisen says, “I know. Me too.”

Megren prods him gently in the side.

Lanisen squirms involuntarily and lowers his elbows quickly to guard against further prodding.

Megren grins. “What other secrets are you keeping from me?”

Lanisen shrugs weakly. “None?”

Megren hms skeptically.

Lanisen says, “What’m I meant to be keepin’ from you, then?”

Megren says, “I don’t know. You’re married. You’re actually the king’s son. You hate ginger.”

Lanisen snorts at this, ducking his head.

Megren exclaims, “You ARE the king’s son!”

Lanisen says, “Don’t tell anybody.”

Megren says, “Oh, I have to. You can’t expect me to just sit on information like that.”

Lanisen snorts again and laughs under his breath. He rubs his hand over his face.

Megren sways to bump shoulders with him.

Lanisen bumps back. He’s quiet for a minute, poking at his mostly-uneaten stew, then asks, “What helps, when it gets to feelin’ too close in the castle?”

Megren makes a thoughtful noise. “Getting out for a few hours, if I can, or up onto the parapets at least. The markets or the walls, if nothing else. Cleaning up my bunk. Good dry fire. Small groups instead of large ones.”

Lanisen asks, “Is it better now?”

Megren says, “Little bit. Smells like dogs.”
Megren grins.

Lanisen raises his eyebrows in wry concession and tips his head to the side. “Want to go somewhere else?” he offers.

Megren asks, “And pull you from your hole?”

Lanisen says, “First it’s smelly and now it’s a hole?”

Megren lifts her shoulders.

Lanisen says, aggrieved, “I’m /tryin’/ to be /nice/ here.”

Megren asks, “Have you ever even left this place twice in one day?”

Lanisen sits back in his chair and raises both his hands, letting out an exasperated breath.

Megren says, “Well, I won’t say no, let’s make a day for the historian’s books, then.”

Lanisen says, without heat, “You’re rude.” He pushes back from the table with a scraping of chair legs and gets to his feet, rubbing his shoulder. “Where to?”

Megren returns, “You love me.” She gets up as well. “Hmm.”

Lanisen picks up their bowls to clear away while she decides.

Megren says, “I suppose the market’s all slush.”

Lanisen says, “It’s pretty bad.”

Megren sticks her tongue between her teeth in distaste. “The walls are cleared but they’re dreary.”

Lanisen goes to the hearth to see if his other stone is warm yet.

Megren says, “The pasture’s just mud.”

Lanisen says, “We could–” He pulls his lips between his teeth and pauses.

Megren lifts her brows.

Lanisen says, “Um, there’s the garden.”

Megren exclaims, “Oh! Oh. Can we?”

Lanisen says, “I don’t– um, I been… Mistress Sareen lets me take clippings for Cass so I go in the evenings a lot to collect ’em, it’s– nobody’s ever told me to, to go, so…”

Megren smacks him in the good arm. “All this time I didn’t have to be begging them off Sef?”

Lanisen jumps. He rubs his arm, confused. “You what?”

Megren says, “I’ve been getting cuttings from Sef all winter when I could’ve just asked you.”

Lanisen protests, “I didn’t know you were gettin’ ’em too!”

Megren makes a face like she finds this unlikely, but she moves toward the hook on the wall to get her coat. “All right, let’s find Cass something, then.”

Lanisen puts on his scarf and shrugs into his coat, rolling his shoulder to stretch it with a sort of absent impatience. “All right, sounds–” He casts a quick glance over the kennel to make sure all is in order before they leave, then nods. “Let’s go.”

Megren nods, opening the door for him, careful of the dogs.

Lanisen makes his escape and waits for her outside.

Tower Garden
Castle Anvard

The garden at the top of the nobles’ tower is a wilder and less formal garden than the queen’s garden below. Mountain-hardy wildflowers such as columbine and aster are grouped in attractive clusters, growing in large planters of varying heights, and a large bank of lavender thrives on the west side of the tower, out of the shade of the solarium to the southeast. There is a small raised pool in the center of the garden, full of enormous orange-mottled carp grown fat and slow and tame with daily feeding.

A circular stairway winds around the exterior of the pool, leading down into the tower, and a break in the crenellated wall on the northwest side leads to the queen’s garden. Standing at the east wall, one can see down into the inner ward, and the curve of the wall on the west side from south to north overlooks the castle grounds below. The mountains of Archenland rise over the castle to the immediate north, the range stretching away into the west.

Megren follows Lanisen through the ward and up the stairs into the garden.

Lanisen goes quiet and watchful as they pass through the upper level of the tower, his shoulders hunching up slightly, and he casts a quick glance across the snowy garden as they emerge. It is deserted, and he relaxes.

Megren peers curiously into the pool, which lies under a thin, transparent sheet of ice.

Lanisen follows her, tilting his head slightly. “The fish?” he asks.

Megren says, “Swimming underneath, I think.”

Lanisen scans the pool, frowning slightly. “Oh,” he says, and points.

Megren draws in a sharp, involuntary breath.

Lanisen glances at her in alarm.

Megren colors and wrinkles her nose.

Lanisen regards her uncertainly. “All right?”

Megren says with embarrassment, “I saw one.”

Lanisen squints and then lets out a little burst of laughter that creates small puffs of frost in the chilly air. He tips his head toward the solarium.

Megren nods, giving the pond a last glance.

Queen’s Solarium
Castle Anvard

This is a large, circular room with enormous diamond-paned windows facing each direction. North, the solarium looks out over the castle’s rooftop gardens, while the south and west windows provide a beautiful view of Archenland’s eastern forests. By standing at the east window, one can see down into the wards of the castle. The large door to the northwest can be propped open on pleasant days.

There are a number of plants growing here, ranging from the practical to the delicate and exotic. Several potted banks of medicinal herbs share space with a small fruit-bearing lemon tree, and a Calormene jasmine plant has been trained up an ornamental trellis near the south window.

Sareen kneels at the edge of a bed.

Lanisen opens the door, but makes sure his boots are clean of any snow or muck before he enters the solarium. He steps aside for Megren.

Megren copies him and glances around the room. Her eyes land on the figure of the gardener.

Sareen hums while she works, not bothering to glance over her shoulder to see who has entered the sanctuary–if, indeed, she heard them.

Lanisen hesitates slightly, having sought out Sareen almost as soon as he stepped through the door. “Evenin’, mistress,” he calls across the room.

Sareen looks up, and rises unevenly. “And who’s this? Lanisen?”

Lanisen says, “Um, yes ma’am, sorry, I didn’t mean to interrupt if you’re…”

Sareen laughs lightly, “…weeding? Interruptions are welcome. And you’ve brought a friend?”

Megren smiles from behind Lanisen’s shoulder. “We’ve never been properly introduced, have we? I feel as if I know you from Reina. I’m Megren. We were hoping to come up here and get a little summer, if we’re not a bother.”

Lanisen steps back slightly and angles himself more toward Megren.

Sareen says, “Ah yes, Megren. Reina’s mentioned you. And summer is in short supply around Anvard these days. I’m not so selfish as to keep it all to myself. Of course you’re both welcome.”

Megren says, “I hope not enough to paint me too much a mischief-maker. I like to make that reputation of my own accord.”

Lanisen grins, rubbing his elbow. “Is there much more weeding?” he asks. “Can I help?”

Sareen says, “Hmm just don’t go stamping through anything I’ve planted and I doubt I’ll believe any charges of mischief.” She looks to Lanisen. “No. Not much. I’ve about finished.”

Megren asks, “Does that leave you done for the evening, or is there anything else we can help with?”

Sareen wipes her hands on her apron. “Done for the evening.”

Lanisen nods. His eyes are drawn to the west windows, to where the sun is beginning to dip below the mountains.

Megren looks at Lanisen as if to quip, but her gaze follows his.

Sareen picks up her trowel and cleans it with an oiled cloth before stowing both in a bucket.

Lanisen glances at Sareen and begins to move hesitantly toward the west side of the room for a better view.

Sareen follows the others’ gaze. “It’s a nice view, isn’t it?”

Megren says, “One of the perks of working in a glass room, hm?””

Sareen says, “One of many.”

Lanisen reaches the west wall and raises his arm to clear the fog off the glass with his sleeve. He takes a deep breath.

Haft enters the solarium, frowning slightly as he takes in the interior. He has a folded piece of parchment in his hand.

Megren follows Lanisen’s path. “What’s the best bit, then?”

Sareen picks at a loose bit of thread on her shawl. “Getting to work with flowers and trees year-round. And staying warm. Musn’t ignore that.”

Lanisen turns at the sound of the door, and looks slightly surprised to see Haft.

Haft looks surprised in his turn by the other occupants of the solarium. “Good evening, Lanisen, Meg…”

Sareen asks, “No greeting for me?”

Haft turns toward Sareen, shifting awkwardly. “Sadie, this came up to the gatehouse. The page on duty was shirking–or sick, maybe, but we weren’t told. Anyway…” He rubs the back of his neck and holds out a letter.

Megren turns at the greeting and regards Haft with surprise about equal to Lanisen’s.

Lanisen dips his head to Haft to return the greeting but stays quiet, rubbing his elbow.

Sareen shuffles over to pluck the letter from Haft’s fingers. “Thank you.” She inserts a nail to break it open and reads quickly. “It’s from my son, in Andale. Company for dinner tonight, and wonders if I’ll join them.”

Megren says, “Oh, that’s nice.”

Sareen smiles. “Yes. It’s probably his wife’s way of telling him that she needs an extra pair of hands and he’d better send for some.”

Lanisen asks tentatively, “You want us to clear on out of here, ma’am?”

Sareen says, “Not at all. The gardens are open to any castle folk, so long as the nobles aren’t wanting them. Their Majesties were always free about that.”

Haft folds his arms and looks around the solarium at greater length. “It’s changed a lot…this room.”

Megren asks, “Yeah?”

Haft nods. “From when the queen was alive,” he says quietly.

Lanisen blinks a little at Sareen’s assertion, but nods and steps back slightly. His eyes shift to Haft.

Sareen turns to survey what is largely her and Reina’s handiwork. “Yes, it’s changed. Prince Cor wanted something that would remind the Lady Aravis of Calormen.”

Haft’s lips tighten briefly.

Megren says, “I’ve hardly been up here.”

Lanisen watches Haft’s face. His forehead furrows a little and he glances around the garden.

Haft’s fingers tighten on his arms. “I used to have duty in the Queen’s Garden sometimes.”

Megren says, “His majesty and the prince must have great respect for Lady Aravis.”

Sareen smiles. “Yes. They’ve been very kind to Her Ladyship.”

Lanisen crosses both his arms over his stomach.

Haft nods.

Megren glances at Lanisen. “I think I… hm, Tiny. Haven’t seen her yet today and I better check in. Lanisen, want to help look?”

Haft mutters, “Check my bunk.”

Megren grins, “You’re going to steal her off me, aren’t you?”

Haft holds his hands up. “How is your cat’s needy disposition my fault?”

Megren says, “You encourage it.”

Haft snorts.

Sareen asks, “A cat person, is he?”

Lanisen lifts his shoulders to Megren. He glances behind him at the foggy west windows, still golden with the last sunlight, and shifts slightly so that he can watch both the conversation and the sunset.

Megren frowns slightly, but lets Lanisen be. “Looks human to me but that might be deceiving. You haven’t got paws in those boots, have you, Haft?”

Haft scowls. “I do not.”

Megren says, “Just a person person, then.”

Haft rolls his eyes.

Megren gives him a punishing look for this and sticks out her tongue.

Sareen clucks her tongue. “I think I’ll leave you children to your conversation. My daughter-in-law will be expecting me. Goodnight Lanisen, Megren, Haft.”

Megren’s expression immediately turns back to its usual friendliness. “Good night. Nice to officially meet.”

Haft is suddenly staring at his toes. “Night Sadie,” he murmurs.

Lanisen ducks his head to her. “G’night, ma’am. Thank you.”

Sareen bobs her head and then slips out of the solarium.

Megren looks between the two reticents shrewdly.

Haft looks up after Sareen has left, but doesn’t notice Megren’s expression.

Lanisen gives Megren a ‘what’ look.

Megren trots over to find a good bench and watch the last of the sunset. “Haft, want to come see?”

Haft says, “Huh? Yeah, sure.” He walks over toward the window where the other two are observing.

Megren says, “The clouds are a bit muggy for a really good one.”

Lanisen stays by the window. He uses his sleeve to clear a little of the window-fog again and peers down at the ground.

Megren asks, “Anything good?”

Haft says, “Windows are pretty steamed. It’s not usually this bad.”

Lanisen lifts his shoulders slightly. “Some tracks?” he offers.

Haft says, “Think I’d best take a look from outside. Got to get back to the gatehouse anyway. I’m still on duty.””

Megren looks downward. “Hmm.” She glances at Haft. “Oh. Sure, have a good shift.”

Haft nods and heads for the door.

Lanisen turns slightly to watch him go.

Megren asks when he’s gone, “You all right?”

Lanisen asks, “What? Yeah, I’m, yeah. Sorry.”

Megren says, “Nothing to be sorry over, just checking.”

Lanisen moistens his lips and glances out at the rooftop garden before he comes to sit on the bench with Megren.

Megren says, “It’s nice up here.”

Lanisen nods agreement. He sits forward and folds his arms on his knees. “I never been here at sunset before.”

Megren says, “We’ll have to come up when the clouds are better.”

Lanisen says vaguely, “It’s just the cold. Sef said.”

Megren says, “Not the windows, the sky’s all one, instead of, you know, puffs, or bumps, or, or layers.”

Lanisen says, “Oh. Yeah.”

Megren says, “At least maybe we’ll have fog tonight.”

Lanisen mms quietly at this idea.

Megren releases a breath.

Lanisen glances at her.

Megren returns the glance. “Thanks.”

Lanisen raises his eyebrows and grins faintly, relieved. He knocks his knee against hers affectionately.

Megren smiles, and looks back out at the window.

Lanisen rubs his bad hand absently.

Megren holds out her own hand palm upward.

Lanisen glances at her before he gives her his hand.

Megren holds his palm in one hand and works her fingers between each of his muscles with the other. “Tell me if it’s not good.”

Lanisen nods, but his eyes squint up a little as she works and he pulls his lips between his teeth.

Megren is a while before she glances at his face. When she does, she frowns. “It’s bad?”

Lanisen shakes his head quickly. “No, it’s– neither, it’s just– buzzy. You know?”

Megren asks, “Is it making it buzz more?”

Lanisen pauses to consider this. “I don’t… no, I don’t think so, it usually helps to work it out a little bit, it’s just– You know, when your foot’s gone to sleep from sittin’ funny, when you walk on it to wake it up again you can’t hardly stand the first couple steps?”

Megren mms affirmatively.

Lanisen says, “That.”

Megren asks, “Are you finding you can use it more if you keep it from buzzing, or it doesn’t matter?”

Lanisen says, “Um.” He frowns slightly. “I can’t use it much when it’s actually buzzin’, but otherwise it don’t seem to make any difference.”

Megren asks, “What’s it like when it’s not buzzing?”

Lanisen looks down at his hand. He withdraws it from Megren’s hold and opens it as flat as it will go. “It’s– this part,” he draws a line across his palm from between his second and third fingers to the outside of his wrist, “it’s sort of– I can feel things mostly but it’s, it feels wrong? I don’t know how to say, it’s sort of, it’s like when people are talkin’ but you’ve got a scarf over your ears?” His face screws up a little with dissatisfaction at this metaphor.

Megren pushes her mouth to the side. She holds out her own hand like a map, pressing the place in her own palm. “Like, it doesn’t quite do what you want as fast as you want or as well?”

Lanisen says, “Well, it’s–” He wiggles his fingers to show her, opening his hand and closing it again several times. The two bad fingers seem only to be following the functional ones, and the knuckles do not straighten. “They don’t really like to hold onto things either, but I can make do with the others on most stuff.”

Megren looks thoughtful. “I bet we could make a hilt special for you.”

Lanisen is given pause by this. He opens his mouth uncertainly and asks, “How’s that?”

Megren nods in confirmation of her own idea. “Yeah. Take a crossbow hilt and stick a pommel on the end of it so you have better grip but still wrist control… the balance would be different, I suppose they’d have to try a few test ones.”

Lanisen is warily silent, not following her train of thought.

Megren says, “I’ll ask Sir Darrin what he thinks.”

Lanisen’s face remains unsure and slightly lost, but after a small pause he says in a petulant sort of voice, “But I spent so much time on my off hand!”

Megren grins. “Expert in both. I’d like to see who else can boast to that.”

Lanisen hmms and dips his head to the side. “‘S not very likely I’ll ever be expert in either,” he adds after a pause. “But that would be…”

Megren’s grin gets wider. “Pretty great, right?”

Lanisen says, “Pretty great.” He raises his eyebrows at her. “You’re liable to get closer than me.”

Megren sticks out her tongue doubtfully. “Pair of duel experts, then.”

Lanisen agrees, “All right.” He sticks his tongue out between his teeth, grinning.

Megren says, “Good, it’s decided, then.”

Lanisen snorts a little indulgently. “Sure, yeah.”

Megren says, “I really should make sure Tiny’s not leaving rodents on anyone’s pillows.”

Lanisen says, “It’s only ’cause she’s worried you can’t catch your own.”

Megren says, “Worried poor Perth can’t.”

Lanisen says, “He’ll starve.”

Megren huffs a laugh. “You’d think, the way he eats.”

Lanisen gets reluctantly to his feet, turning in place to survey the solarium in the half-light from the dusk outside.

Megren says, “We’ll come again.”

Lanisen says, “I bet it’s nice at night.”

Megren says, “Specially when it’s clear.”

Lanisen agrees, “And not cold.”

Megren says, “Yes.”

Lanisen says, “All right,” and heads for the door.

Megren trails after.


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