"You cannot open a book without learning something."
If Varin couldn't hear her coming, he'd gone deaf. She didn't run down the hall to the study that had once been her fathers, the study that Varin had filled with cheap knickknacks and unchecked books and careless signatures on documents that he'd never read. She walked instead, but she walked loudly, the ticking of metal beating in time with her steps, which seemed in her ears to echo on the stone floor. There had been plenty of time to get her anger worked up to boiling.
Varin visibly jumped when the door banged open, and so did the maid who had been sitting on his lap. She left the room before the doors could swing back into place.
"Congratulations," Adria told her brother, "You're a father. Again."
He didn't even look embarrassed.
"I assume you interrupted me for something important, Adria," he said petulantly, crossing his arms over his chest.
"How about the fact that if this one turns out to be a boy he'll technically be your heir, given that you're not married yet and don't have any legitimate children?" Adria snapped, crossing the room to brace one arm on her brother's desk, "or the fact that I have to send another of the maids off to some dairy farm in the countryside and find the money to keep the child fed and clothed?"
"You managed last time," he said with a shrug, "I'm sure you can handle this one."
"That is not the point. Why don't you just get married and have an heir? Or you could seriously consider not chasing every skirt you see, that would be an improvement too. And what if this one's a boy, what then? I have to pay people to keep quiet about who the father is, starting with the maid and all her family, then I have to find a place for her to live with the baby and a way to provide for it without making anyone suspicious. Sooner or later someone's going to figure out that one of these kids looks exactly like you, and we'll have them being set up to take the Dukedom away from you." She could feel the muscles standing out in her arms as her grip tightened on the edge of the desk.
"You know, you would have been more fun as a brother than a sister," Varin said, seemingly unconcerned with Adria's barely-concealed rage, "I don't expect you to understand, but men -"
"Can restrain themselves from hopping into bed with any doe-eyed ingénue who they lay eyes on, or there would be no monastaries."
"I should send you to a nunnery."
"Then who would do your paperwork?" Adria was trying very hard to stay mad. As stupid as Varin might be, he was still her brother, and arguing with him was still something that usually restored her mood. It was easy to be irritated with him, hard to stay truly angry for long, so long as he was still being flippant and carefree, like he had been when they'd been children. Until, of course, he said something stupid again.
"I'd have liked you better as a brother," Varin said quietly, "then, when father died, I wouldn't have been alone."
Adria, suddenly angry once more, let out a hollow laugh. "If I'd been born your brother, Varin, I'd be the one sitting in your desk."
It took him a moment to register the sound, and then his eyebrows came snapping down into a rigid line. "You forget that I am your Duke as well as your brother," he snapped.
"Varin, half the time you forget that you're the Duke," she replied. It was a safe dig, completely true, and one with which she'd needled her brother about a thousand times before. It shouldn't be anything different today.
"It would be best, sister," Varin said in a cold voice, "for you to quit questioning my decisions and learn your proper place. Even if you had been born a man, you would not be my equal, and you should be grateful to me for my kindness, considering your weakness. It is only out of my consideration for you that I do not reassign your chambermaid, who is certainly unfit company for an impressionable young noblewoman."
Adria was aghast. "You leave Letta out of this, I need her!" she shouted at Varin.
"Is that her name? She's quite comely, but unsuited for her position."
"If you so much as look at her," Adria hissed at her brother, leaning closer against his desk, "I'll tell Mother."
Varin smiled a thin smile. "I am the Duke," he reminded her, "What will Mother do, wring her hands at me?"
"Fine," she spat, "I'll tell Nurse."
He cringed visibly at the thought of a scolding from their old nurse, and she turned as quickly as she could to go. He didn't stop her as she stamped across the room to the doors, never offered help as she slammed one with her right shoulder and disappeared. He was long behind her when she reached the stairs and sank slowly down, gripping the rail all the way, unable to walk at that pace any further.
She stared at nothing – at the grey walls of the keep, at the faded tapestry, at the toe of her slipper poking out from her skirts where her left leg was stretched out in a stiff, straight line across the floor. Would Varin go through with his threat, or was it all just puffed-up air to make himself feel more important? It was impossible to tell anymore.
Time had been, years ago when they were children, that Varin had been her best friend. They'd done almost everything together, which had largely been whatever they'd wanted, charging about the keep and the castle lands. He'd kept all his promises then, when he wasn't driving her crazy by leaving her behind in the dust as he, a year older and several inches taller, ran on ahead.
Of course, that had been when they were children, before they'd grown up and she'd been left alone. Before their Father had died and Varin had changed, the pressures of the Dukedom too much for him. Her weakness, indeed. Who had kept the castle and the Dukedom running for those two years when Varin was behaving like the debauched prince of a fairy tale? It certainly hadn't been their mother, fluttering around like a faded moth in her mourning colors.
She rested her head against the wall and thought about getting up. Not yet, though. Not until she could figure out what she was going to do about her brother. He wasn't likely to listen to any of her reasoning or follow her advice in this matter – especially not now, when she'd simply passed her anger on to him and made him twice as stubborn – in part because he was too proud, and in part because he didn't plan ahead. And why would he? That was her job, the planning, and the only thing she actually could do to keep the whole Dukedom from going to the dogs. On a melodramatic day, she'd be likely to claim that it was actually the only thing that she could do at all… that road of thought was only going to take her in circles, though. Going over and over the past didn't change it, or the present, at all.
With a sigh, she reached up for the banister and pulled herself back up from the floor. At the very least, she thought, as she grimly started up the stairs, she could warn Letta. Varin couldn't send her away if he forgot about her, and the easiest way to achieve that was to keep her well out of his sight.
Adria had to pause at the top of that flight of stairs and lean against the wall, still gripping the banister. She wasn't certain if she was more frustrated with Varin or with herself – she should be able to take the stairs, at least – so she headed for the library instead of her rooms.
Once inside, she took a deep, calming breath, filled with dust motes and the smell of stretched leather. Then she headed towards the back room, her footsteps leaving a slight thud behind her, one which the ancient librarian, the only other official denizen of the dusty room, knew by now not to investigate. It was only when the door was shut behind her, though, that she managed to relax. Her desk drawer was still shut and locked.
She'd taken this room as her very own years ago, partly because she had vowed never to have her world shrink to the four walls of her bedroom ever again, and partly as a good place to hide both herself and the book that she kept in her desk drawer. In that book, she kept her memories, and had kept them for the last eight years. It wasn't anything much – some idle sketches at first, a handful of sentences scattered around the pages – but it was hers. It was the one thing of her that would still exist after her death, and the place where she kept everything that she simply couldn't say. She drew the book out of its drawer, but left it sitting on the desk, staring at the cover.
The first few entries, which she seldom looked at, were an outpouring of thoughts, of the things that she simply had to spit out somewhere, in case her breath stopped again and took all of her thoughts, her very being, with it. Those entries were untouchable, preserved like leaves between the pages, because they had been fueled by her terror, because they had been written at a time when she thought she would never live to be nineteen. They were remote from who she was now, and should stay that way. Some of the later entries she never looked at either, because they had bled bitterness into the pages, and if she let that bitterness return to define her, she'd become nothing but a dried up husk. But she'd also filled in her old memories, the things that had defined her before the sickness.
After turning a few pages, she came upon the right entry, but she didn't read it. It was her account, more than four years after the fact, of the day she had first decided that Varin was stupid. The pain of the realization had been great at the time – he was, after all, her older brother, and she was supposed to look up to him – but now it was worn away to a smooth bump in her mind. Varin, she knew, did not actually know what would happen ahead of time when he did something. He didn't think about the consequences, and he didn't plan. He did things for stupid reasons or no reason at all, and he couldn't distinguish between good advice and bad. He'd been all right when their father had been alive, but largely because he didn't have too many responsibilities that couldn't be handled by referring to tradition. When their father had died, however, he'd been lost. People said he'd gone mad with grief, but Adria knew better. He'd gone mad from knowing that he wasn't able to do his job, the only purpose in his life that he could envision, the thing that he'd been bred, born and raised for. So he decided to throw it all away and himself along with it.
Even though she knew that about her brother, she found herself constantly needing to remind herself not to give him more credit for rational thought than he deserved. She needed to be the one with the plan, because it had never occurred to Varin that if he drowned in the river, the entire Dukedom would be plunged into chaos, because he had no will and no direct heir. He didn't have a place to press his thoughts for safekeeping, to preserve them against his eventual death. He'd never, even after their father's funeral, realized that he, too, was mortal.
For Adria, who was flipping backwards through the pages, death was something she'd been deeply aware of since three months after her eleventh birthday.
~ xXx0xXx ~
Author's note: Well, I'm back, and so is the world of… oh dear, I haven't named the world where Renua is located yet. In any case, Vespasian, Venturos, Rynar, and now Adria, are back along with me. Blame S. H. Marr for that, she's the main reason that I finally got this organized. Say hi to her while you're blaming her for my recent prolific activity too, she got a book published, which is awesome and totally deserved. May her good luck and karma rub off on us all.
Oh yeah, I'm still working on editing / finding appropriate chapter quotes for Silver in Eillen, and you don't really have to read these in order, because almost nothing of that story will be gone over in any detail here.