"I'd rather not go myself, dear heart," Tellian said. He put an arm around Hanatha and hugged her gently. "What I wish I could do is stay here with you. If I can't bring Leeana home to you—and I can't—then if the gods were fair, I could at least be here with you while we adjust to the emptiness."
"The gods are never unfair," Hanatha said. She rose on tiptoe to kiss his cheek and smiled sadly at him. "We mortals make our own decisions, and we must live with their consequences."
"I don't remember deciding that an unmitigated bastard like Cassan, with the morals of a pimp and the mind of a weasel, had any right to propose a lecherous dog older than I am, who's little better than a common rapist, as our only daughter's husband!" Tellian replied, just a bit more warmly than he'd intended to.
"No," she replied, and her own quiet tone was a gentle rebuke, "but I don't remember saying we had to live only with the consequences of our own decisions. It wouldn't be proper for me to agree with your description of Cassan or Blackhill," she continued primly, "but since only a most undutiful wife would disagree with her husband, and I, of course, am far too beaten down and intimidated to be anything but dutiful, I'll let that deplorable language pass. If, however, the opportunity to introduce Cassan's parents to one another should ever come your way, I trust you will do so."
"But whatever we may think of the two of them," Hanatha continued more seriously, "they, too, have power to make decisions, and their decisions carry consequences not simply for them, but for others. Including us. And however much it may pain us, Leeana's decisions also carry consequences for all of us. It seems to me that it would be asking a bit much of the gods to sort out that incredible snake's nest of mutually conflicting decisions just so they could make you and me happy. Mind you, I wouldn't object if they decided to do exactly that, but I'm afraid the best any of us can do is cope with our own decisions—and responsibilities—as best we may."
"There are times, love—many times—when I feel the wrong one of us was born male. You would have made a superb baron."
"Perhaps. But as it is, I get to give my advice knowing the ultimate responsibility is yours, not mine." She smiled. "That means I feel less pressure, so I suppose it's only natural that it should be easier for me to take a long view."
"Perhaps," he agreed, and turned, his arm still around her, to look down from the upper terrace at the armsmen waiting patiently for him to join them. Breastplates flashed under the morning sun, brass and leatherwork gleamed, and the blue-and-white gryphon banner of Balthar and the personal standard of its Baron stirred in the gentle breeze. His eyes rested on the gryphon—the ancient emblem of Ottovar's vanished empire in Kontovar, carried only by the Sothōii here in Norfressa—and his mouth tightened.
"I should be going to Warm Springs, as I'd intended," he said, and Hanatha sighed. She was the one who had pointed out why he should change his mind, yet she knew he wasn't really arguing against her. It was the inescapable fact that there was only one of him which he really hated.
"You can go to only one place at a time, Tellian," she said patiently, in a we've-already-had-this-discussion sort of tone. "Prince Bahzell, Hurthang, Gharnal, Brandark, and Kelthys have all gone to Warm Springs. If they can't be trusted to deal with whatever happened there, just who do you think can?"
"Oh, no, Tellian!" She shook her head, then turned to wave a finger under his nose. "You are not going to double- and triple-think your way into belaboring yourself with a guilty conscience this time! You have responsibilities in Glanharrow, as well as in Warm Springs, and the most experienced, most competent people you could possibly have chosen have already gone to Warm Springs. Trianal, on the other hand, is probably your least experienced senior officer, and he's all alone at Glanharrow as your direct representative." She half-glared at him. "Now, given all of that, how can you possibly even doubt where you ought to be going?"
"Better," she said, a twinkle lurking in the eyes which had been so shadowed with sorrow ever since his return from Kalatha without Leeana. Those eyes narrowed for just an instant as she wondered how much of his apparent indecisiveness was no more than a ploy to distract her from their shared grief by inciting her to take him to task.
"Yes, dear," he said meekly. Then he drew a deep breath and squared his shoulders.
"Speaking of Trianal," he began. "I've been -thinking—"
"Yes," she said, and he blinked in surprise at the interruption.
" 'Yes,' what?" he asked.
"Yes, you should go ahead and write Gayarla and His Majesty about our formal adoption of Trianal."
He looked down at her, his eyes suddenly soft, and she gazed back up at him with a serenity she was surprised to discover was almost entirely genuine.
"Of course it hurts to think that in some way we would be 'replacing' Leeana with such indecent haste," she went on. "But after her, he's the only logical heir, anyway. The Royal Council would certainly name him as your heir if you died tomorrow! So the sooner it's done and the matter is officially settled, the sooner people like Cassan will be unable to meddle in the succession. And that was the entire reason Leeana . . . left us. Besides, Trianal is a wonderful boy. I couldn't love him more if he'd been our son from birth. And—I know you won't take this wrongly—despite everything your sister-in-law did wrong raising him, he's grown into a fairly wonderful young man, as well. One who will make an excellent baron and lord warden after you."
"I feel sure Gayarla would point out that it was you and I who lost a daughter to those unnatural, depraved war maids, which clearly proves who was the superior parent. As it happens, however, I agree with you that Trianal represents a special miracle, under the circumstances. But are you certain, love, that you're ready to do this so quickly?"
"Tellian, is there some reason your softening brain is causing you to forget who my father and grandfather were? The Whitesaddles aren't exactly strangers to politics or the responsibilities of rulers. It's not as if we have a great deal of choice about it . . . which is why I'm so glad Trianal is someone we already love." She shook her head. "Write the letters, Tellian. But do it from Glanharrow! You've wasted enough time dithering about leaving me behind already!"
"Yes, Milady," he said. But then he took her in his arms, standing high on the terrace where every one of his waiting armsmen could see them, and kissed her long, lingeringly, and passionately. He took his time to do it properly, and he left her panting for breath when they finally straightened.
"Lout!" She smacked him on the breastplate with a balled-up fist, her eyes shining. "How dare you insult my dignity so publicly! My husband will know how to deal with your familiarities, Sirrah!"
"I don't know about that," he said, his eyes devouring her face with bright, passionate tenderness, "but I know how eager I'll be to get back home to you. And," his eyes twinkled, and he brushed her lips lightly with his own once more, "whether your husband will know how to deal with me or not, Milady, I will most assuredly know how to deal with you!"