" . . . as long as you both shall live?" the cleric finished, smiling benignly at the young couple.
"I do," Cherisa Starfire choked out, her tears running onto her simple gown.
"I now pronounce you husband and wife," the cleric intoned, adding, "You may kiss the bride."
Venitus Skybright needed no encouragement. He caught his young wife up in his arms and pressed his lips to hers. "I shall love you forever and beyond," he whispered against her mouth.
Venitus sat, looking out the window. The rain pelted the glass relentlessly. Everything was smeared grey. The stone walls absorbed, reflected, and intensified the monochrome.
He sighed heavily. It had been almost twenty years since Cherisa died, some eighteen next season. Childbirth had killed her, but luckily not the child.
Cherisa's daughter – his daughter, he amended guiltily – had been a beautiful child, all red hair and blue eyes. He winced. His Astriella had been so much like Cherisa.
Memories came fast and furious now: His brother Marcus offering to help raise the girl. Astriella, looking baffled as Venitus moved out of his and Cherisa's house, unable to bear the memories anymore. Astriella again, utterly devastated when she found Marcus dead. And a third time, unfeeling, uncaring, blank, as he left her at the orphanage a decade ago.
Each time he remembered his daughter's face, Venitus shook as if from a physical blow. "Ah, my Astriella," he whispered. "What have I done to you? My daughter . . . ah, if only I had realized then how I love you!" He rested his head against the windowpane. The rain pounded against the glass, driving his mind into oblivion.
Some time later, a sharp rap on his door startled him from his reverie. Quickly recovering himself, he called, "Come in."
The door opened and a tall young woman with flaming red hair stepped in. Her eyes, hesitant and uncertain, flickered over the room before landing on Venitus. Immediately all her hesitation and uncertainty vanished in a wave of anger and hate.
"Uncle," she greeted him coolly. He frowned, confused. He had a niece?
"Greetings," he returned bemusedly. "May I have the honor of knowing to whom I speak?"
Her face twisted in a sardonic grin. "Ah, I see you don't remember me. I hadn't expected that. Maybe I think too highly of myself, mmm? Allow me to refresh your memory. I'm your brother's daughter, Astriella."
It was several moments before Venitus could speak. "Pardon me, but I confess I was unaware that Marcus had any children."
The girl shrugged. "I'm the only one. Apparently my mother died in childbirth." Suddenly her eyes – the exact same shade blue as his own, Venitus saw with a twinge – narrowed. "I can't believe you don't know this. You helped him raise me! Have you forgotten?" she threw at him angrily. "You moved out and then you killed Papa!"
Venitus stared at her in shock. "You believe I killed Marcus?" he asked, stunned. "You truly think I slew my brother? It never even occurred to me . . . I would have no reason . . . How did you arrive at this conclusion?"
"You don't remember?" she gritted out through clenched teeth. "No, you wouldn't . . . when I found Papa dead, he had a knife buried in his back. Your knife. I remembered it from when you taught me to whittle a dragon when I was five." She folded her arms across her chest. "I want to know why."
He shoved his hand through his messy brown hair. "Astriella. I know there is no way I could ever be able to convince you that I had nothing to do with . . . Marcus' . . . death. Therefore there is no point in me trying. And I understand that I could never begin to apologize for abandoning you for these ten years. But please, please know that I did not murder my brother and I regret the day I left you at that orphanage more than anything else I have ever done," he said fervently. "I am more sorry for that than you will ever know, and I wish with all my heart that I could take that day and redo it and keep you with me. Someday I hope you can find it in you to overlook a fool's mistake and forgive me."
The redhead laughed disdainfully. "I can't help but notice, Uncle, that you seem to be avoiding referring to my father as such. You've been going out of your way to say 'Marcus' and 'my brother' and never 'your father.' What, you don't think he is?"
Venitus phrased his next statement carefully. "I do not call him your father for a perhaps rather personal reason. Until I believe you are likely to accept my answer, I think I shall not test you." He walked behind his desk and sat down, gazing wearily at her over steepled fingers. "You may as well sit down, my dear. I fear we have a good deal to discuss."
"I'd rather stand," she assured him haughtily. "And I've accepted a lot more than you could possibly know. Try me." She stared challengingly at him.
He rubbed his face tiredly. By all the gods, why now? First the memories, then this – more than memory . . . And where in heaven's name did she dredge up the impossible idea that Marcus was her father?! Even at such a young age as seven she must have seen they had no commonalities . . . thank the gods for that . . . ah, gods, she does so resemble Cherisa . . . "My dear, you must understand I have no desire to hurt you. Believe me, this would hurt you, hurt and confuse and upset you. But if you must know, then I suppose I am the last living to know the truth and as such must pass it on." He stood and went around the desk to place his hands on her shoulders. "My dearest Astriella. I do not acknowledge Marcus as your father because he is not."
She laughed in his face. "What's your proof? If faced with lies or truth, I pick the one I've known."
Venitus gazed at her apologetically. "I am truly sorry that I have to tell you this, my dearest Astriella."
She jerked back, away from him. "Stop calling me dearest!"
He inclined his head, acknowledging her wish. "I know you are not Marcus' daughter because I knew your mother very well." He turned to look out the window. "I was very close to her. When she discovered she was pregnant, she came to me."
"Before she told my father?" Astriella interrupted skeptically.
He glanced at her. "No. Your father was the first to know. When she told me, however, I . . . Marcus had been casting aspersions on her fidelity . . ."
"Venitus! How can you even ask me whose it is?" Cherisa cried, hurt.
He gathered into his arms. "Love, I will believe you, whatever you say. I ask only because – well, you have heard the rumors just as I have."
She sniffled. "You know I've never . . . with anyone but you. Especially not that horrid Marcus! I can't help feeling uncomfortable around him," she added, looking up at her husband.
Venitus smiled despite the moment. "I know, dearest. I am sorry for upsetting you." He bent his head and brushed a kiss across her lips. They stood together, watching the sun set . . .
"Uncle?" Venitus started. Astriella was standing in front of him, looking curious despite herself.
"Yes, my d-Astriella?" he corrected himself.
The redhead bit her lip almost shyly. "If Marcus isn't my father, then who is? And why did he tell me he was? And why wasn't I raised by my real father?"
He looked past her. "After your mother died, your father sank into a deep depression. Of course he tried to be there to raise you, but you so resemble your mother that he often found it . . . difficult, to say the least. He kept trying for more than five years. But shortly before your sixth birthday, he left you with Marcus."
She frowned, thinking. "But, Uncle . . ."
"You must understand," he continued, ignoring her attempt at interrupting, "your father saw how much Marcus doted on you. He believed the two of you would be better off with out his gloom-and-doom attitude." He managed a weak smile. "M– Astriella, when he saw how devastated you were after Marcus died, he feared his plan had worked too well and you had forgotten that he was your father."
"Uncle!" she burst out. "Uncle, I remember that! I remember the man who raised me with Papa – Marcus . . . Uncle, that was you . . . " She stared at him.