Never After | Chapter 27 of 31

Author: Laurell K. Hamilton | Submitted by: Maria Garcia | 4828 Views | Add a Review

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053
6
The Wise Old Grandmother
A half day’s easy travel brought us to the house where Darius and Dannette had grown up, and where their grandmother still lived. It was a sturdy, well built country manor of warm gray stone, with a flower garden out front, a small orchard to the left, a few outbuildings arrayed in back, and enough rambling bulk to make me guess there were about twenty rooms inside.
We were met at the door by two footmen and an aging butler, but we had barely crowded into the hall before the lady of the house swept up to greet us. She was thin and tall and dressed in the height of fashion, with artfully styled dark blond hair and a smile that made her look like her grandchildren.
“Darius,” she said, putting her hands on either side of his face and inspecting him with great pleasure. “You look well.”
“As do you,” he replied. He kissed her cheek, put an arm around her shoulder, and turned her to face the rest of us. “I’ve brought company, as you can see—and very exalted company, at that.”
It seemed that it was only with some reluctance that she brought herself to look away from him. Though she extended her smile to us, I had the sense she wasn’t interested in anyone except Darius. “Welcome,” she said. “I am Arantha Kent. You must be the princess and the queen.”
“How did you know?” Darius exclaimed. “I had thought to astonish you!”
Arantha made very correct curtsies to me and to Gisele, but she eyed me as if I were a horse she might buy and she wasn’t sure I was up to her weight. “The news has spread throughout the kingdom about the king’s competition for his daughter’s hand,” she said a little absently. She reached out a hand to rearrange the way my hair fell across my forehead. Frowning a little, she moved it back. “When the winner was described as a blond young man with a knack for magic, I knew it must be you.”
“I hope you did not find the news overwhelming,” Gisele said kindly. “Sometimes people are awed at the idea of marrying into a royal family.”
But Arantha shook her head. Now she pursed her lips as she considered my gown, muddied and travel-stained. “I always believed Darius was destined for great things,” she said. “I could hardly have hoped for better.”
I heard a muffled laugh behind me, which was when I realized Dannette hadn’t uttered a word since we walked in. Nor had her grandmother even bothered to acknowledge Dannette’s presence with so much as a wave. Even now, Arantha didn’t glance in her grand-daughter’s direction when she said, “I’ll have the servants show you to your rooms. You must be starving. Luncheon will be on the table in an hour.”
054
In contrast to the companionable dinner the night before, the first meal in Arantha Kent’s house was formal, awkward, and just plain odd, although the food was superb. In defiance of traditional protocol, Arantha had seated Darius to her left and let the rest of us choose our own seats. Dannette had taken the place at the foot of the table—more to distance herself from her grandmother, I thought, than to stake her claim to some position in the family. Gisele had pulled up a chair between Darius and Dannette; I sat across from Gisele and next to Harwin.
Arantha spoke to no one but Darius for the entire meal.
They discussed matters pertaining to the property itself—crops and taxes and a drainage problem in the lower acres—but that took up very little of their conversation. Mostly Darius filled her in on his recent adventures, which required a great deal of laughing and gesturing. She hung on his every word, rarely even noticing what she might be putting in her mouth. She was not a demonstrative woman, but the glow on her face as she watched him speak left no doubt that Darius was the center of her world.
And Dannette did not even have a place in it.
After about thirty minutes of keeping near silence, Gisele and Dannette and I began speaking to one another in low tones. “Does she dislike you because of your choices in life or because of your gender?” Gisele asked.
Dannette shrugged. “I’m not even sure she dislikes me. When Darius is not present, we have very civil conversations. She’s never indicated that I wouldn’t be welcome to make this place my home if I had nowhere else to go.” She smiled mischievously. “Of course, that might be because Darius has made it plain that I would always be welcome here, and she would never do anything counter to Darius’s wishes.”
Harwin scooted his chair down to join our discussion, since it was clear otherwise he had no hope of conversation at all. “She seems to have done an admirable job of running the estate, but I wonder what she expects to happen to it once she passes on,” he said in his serious way. “Since—from what I’ve observed of your brother—he does not seem ready to settle down and farm.”
Gisele gave me one quick glance, hard to interpret. “And he will soon be living in the palace with Olivia,” she said.
Harwin’s look was even harder to interpret. “Of course,” he said.
Dannette shrugged again. “She is certain Darius will choose the right course, so she does not worry,” she said.
You could take over on your brother’s behalf,” Harwin suggested. “You possess great intelligence and a steadiness of purpose that seems to exceed your brother’s.” When all three of us giggled, he added hastily, “I meant no disrespect to Darius.”
“It has occurred to me,” Dannette admitted. “I am not sure it has occurred to Darius. And I do not believe the thought has crossed my grandmother’s mind.”
Servants brought in a new course, which ended that topic, and we did not get back to it for the rest of the meal. Gisele and Dannette had fallen into a discussion about clothing, so I took pity on Harwin and asked him a few desultory questions about his family estates, which I knew he was very proud of. I can’t say I was excited to learn about his successes with a new breed of pigs, but I was impressed by the depth of knowledge he had about every aspect of the land that one day would be his.
I didn’t know half so much about my own inheritance, the entire kingdom that would one day be mine if Gisele never bore my father a son.
Or if Mellicia never did.
I swallowed and glanced at Gisele. Since that first conversation in the coach, we had never again discussed the danger she was in. I turned to Harwin and asked in an abrupt undervoice, “Do you like Gisele?”
He watched me a moment with narrowed eyes as if trying to discern the question that lay under the question. “I do,” he said at last. “We have similar sober natures, and I have from time to time served as her confidante.”
Then he might know the answer to the next question. “Do you think my father wants her dead?”
He took even longer to answer this time. His eyes went briefly to Gisele and then back to me. “I think your father feels she has failed him in the singular duty for which he selected her.”
“She hasn’t given him a son.”
“Precisely.”
“She thinks he wants to get rid of her so he can marry Sir Neville’s daughter and she’ll have a son.”
His face didn’t change; this was not a new idea to him. “I’m not certain your father’s ruthlessness is so extreme,” he said. “But possibly it is.”
I took a deep breath. I had always disliked my father, but my reasons had been purely selfish. He was careless of me. Unkind to me. Uninterested in my wishes and desires. It hadn’t occurred to me to notice how cruel he might be to others, and to despise him for it. “He’s a bad father and obviously a bad husband,” I said. “Is he a bad king as well?”
“He could have been better, he could have been worse,” Harwin replied quietly. “He elevated favorites and seized lands from families that had held them for generations, but many kings do that. Ten years ago, he promoted skirmishes along the southern borders in a fruitless bid for territory, but it caused him to strengthen the army, and that might not be an entirely bad thing. Some of his taxes have been excessive. Some of his trade decisions have been disastrous. He has been open to bribes. He has been unfaithful to both of his queens. He has been an indifferent king, I suppose, but he has been a wretched man.”
“You hate him,” I said.
Harwin looked at me a long time. “He’s only done one thing that I’ve ever completely approved of,” he said.
He didn’t specify, but I had no doubt what he meant. He produced you as his daughter. I felt my cheeks heat up, and I quickly turned my attention back to my plate of food. But I have to admit I was smiling.
055
Arantha and Darius disappeared after lunch, no doubt so she could show him estate accounts or rent rolls or other receipts. Dannette invited us to a small sitting room, where we all collapsed on a pair of dilapidated sofas. Warm afternoon sunlight poured in from the tall windows and made us all cheerful. It was the first time we’d relaxed since we’d walked into the house.
“This was always my favorite room,” Dannette said. “Probably because I usually had it to myself. My grandmother was always in her office, and Darius was rarely even on the property.”
“Where were your parents?” Gisele asked.
“They died when we were quite young. Darius remembers them better than I do, and he says they were very like the two of us—my father was improvident, kind, and full of magic, while my mother was practical, lighthearted, and curious.”
“My sympathies, then, that you missed the opportunity to get to know them,” Harwin said.
She smiled at him. “It is hard to regret something you never had,” she said. “And we managed well enough without them.”
I remembered my own mother quite clearly. When I was a child, she had seemed like a fairy princess, beautiful and glittering and magical. And, like a fairy princess, impossible to get close to, impossible to touch. I don’t imagine I spent more than an hour a week with her for the whole of my existence. But I cried and cried after her funeral. I had been looking forward to the day I grew old enough for her to take notice of me. I had been so sure that once I was ten, or fifteen, or twenty-five, she would be interested in me, would find me fascinating and delightful. But I had not grown up fast enough. She had died before she could love me.
My father had married Gisele six months later.
I caught Harwin’s quick look and knew he was remembering my tears at the funeral. He had tried so hard to comfort me, but I would not let him take my hand, or distract me with a story about a new litter of puppies, or even talk to me at all.
I wondered if it was too late to tell him how much I appreciated his effort.
Darius poked his head inside the door before any of us had replied to Dannette. “Oh, good, I was sure you would be here,” he said, crossing the room to flop down beside his sister.
“Free so soon?” she teased. “I was sure we wouldn’t see you again until tomorrow—if then.”
“There was a crisis in the kitchen, and you know she doesn’t like me to worry over small domestic trifles,” he said with a grin. “So I made my escape.”
“Is it always like that?” Gisele asked. “You so favored, Dannette so ignored?”
Dannette laughed but Darius looked embarrassed. “Yes,” he said. “I don’t know how to change her. Apparently she was the same way with my aunts. While my father lived, they were invisible. I think the situation was even worse because my father was the youngest of four, and she had wanted a boy for so long.”
Gisele and I exchanged swift glances, and she spoke up in a quiet voice. “I believe a lot of people pin so many of their hopes on their sons that they have no energy or interest left for their daughters.”
“Perhaps there would not be such emotional inequity if there were economic parity,” Harwin said.
Dannette smiled at him. “I love to hear you speak, but I often have no idea what you’re trying to say.”
Gisele stirred. “I think he means that if women were allowed to inherit more property, parents would find it just as easy to love their daughters. But if they know their property most likely will fall into other hands if they only produce daughters, it is hard to feel much affection for a girl.”
“Which makes me think that if I ever have children, I’m going to try to have a girl,” I said, so fiercely that the rest of them laughed. “Well, I am.”
“I would want a daughter also, if I were ever to have children—but—well—I’m not so sure—” Dannette began, and then floundered a little. This earned another laugh from the assembled group.
“I am supposed to be having a son,” Gisele said with some astringency, “but so far I have not been fortunate enough to conceive at all.”
She didn’t say it like she was sorry for herself, but nevertheless I felt a certain amorphous dread in response to her words. If she bore a son, I was cut out of the succession. If she failed to bear a boy . . . she might well be dead.
Dannette nudged Darius with her foot. She had slipped off her shoes, and her toes were long and elegant. “What about you? Do you hope for boys or girls?”
Darius looked surprised. “Oh, I never thought much about it,” he said. “I’m not sure I would be a good father. I might be very careless. It’s probably better if I don’t bother with children at all.”
Gisele’s voice was carefully neutral. “Of course, when you’re living at the palace, there will be many servants on hand to care for your children, no matter how many you produce.”
“Living at the palace?” Darius repeated, and then actually blushed. “Oh, right, right! Then, I say, why not have dozens? Boys and girls.”
“Perhaps not dozens,” I said. “If I am to bear them all.”
Darius looked, for a moment, even more abashed, and then he offered me a smile of breathtaking sweetness. “Then we will have just as many as you desire,” he said, reaching out to take my hand.
I wondered if I was the only one in the room who realized, at that moment, that Darius would never be my husband—or if I was the only one who had not realized it until right now.
Gisele made sure the silence did not become awkward. “And you?” she asked Harwin. “Have you given any thought to your own progeny?”
“I have,” he said in his serious way. “I am certain I would welcome any child born to me and a wife I love. And if I am privileged enough to have a daughter, I will fight to give her the same advantages any son of mine might have, and I will not allow her to be placed in any situation that stifled or abused her.”
“Now, there’s the kind of man I wish my own father was,” Gisele said with a sigh. “Or my own husband.”
I had to admit, I was thinking the same thing.
Dannette poked Darius with her foot again. “So how long must we stay here to appease our grandmother?” she asked. “A day? A week? A month?”
He looked as if he hadn’t given the matter a moment’s thought. “Must we stay? Don’t you think we could leave in the morning?”
All of us cried out against that—not because we had any particular desire to linger, but because none of us, even Dannette, could bear the idea of depriving Arantha so soon of the joy of Darius’s company.
“A week, then, I suppose,” Darius said glumly. I wondered if it was the thought of staying put here, or merely of staying put, that made him despondent.
“And then what?” Harwin asked. “Would you travel on to visit nearby sights and cities? Or would you return straightaway to the palace and begin planning your nuptials?”
There was a small blank space of silence, and then, almost in unison, Darius and I said, “Travel on.”
“We are not far from the coast,” Dannette said to me. “If you’ve never seen the ocean, you will find some magnificent views.”
“I would like to make my way to a harbor town,” Gisele said. From the matching looks Harwin and Dannette wore, I knew both of them realized why Gisele was interested in such a destination.
But Darius hadn’t noticed. He said, “My grandmother asked if we were planning to visit Kannerly, since we’re so close.”
Harwin and Gisele exchanged significant glances. “No,” Gisele said tightly.
“What’s Kannerly?” Dannette asked.
I was frowning. “One of my father’s properties,” I said. “He goes there three or four times a year.”
Dannette looked at me. “But you’ve never been?” When I shook my head, she transferred her thoughtful gaze to Gisele’s face. “I wonder why.”
“If you’re to inherit the estate, shouldn’t you at least know what it looks like?” Darius said.
“I don’t think Olivia would find it a very—welcoming—place,” Gisele said. She was still staring at Harwin, who wore an unreadable expression.
“She’ll have to visit it sometime,” he said.
If they were going to be all mysterious, I had better find out what secrets lay at the heart of Kannerly. “I say we should go there now,” I said firmly. “Just as soon as we can get clear of here.”
Gisele wrenched her gaze from Harwin and said, “Olivia, I truly do not think you will enjoy the journey.”
“A princess has many duties she does not enjoy,” I said loftily. “But that does not mean she should shy away from them. We’ll go to Kannerly when we travel on.”

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Alice
Great book, nicely written and thank you BooksVooks for uploading

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