The sun, presumably, had risen. Presumably, for as usual Lluvia was blanketed with pregnant clouds that grumbled and groaned and threatened to birth their watery children at any moment. It was often said that if it wasn't raining in Lluvia it was snowing, and if it wasn't doing either of those it was about to. This was not strictly accurate for the land did sometimes get pelted with sleet or hail, and one or two days out of the year the clouds went on holiday and let a bit of sun leak through. Today was not one of those rare and wonderful days. It would be gloomy, and damp, and more than a little cool for the rest of the day, and Giselle was neither disappointed nor surprised to wake into a cold and empty bed. Zephaniah did his husbandly duties with responsibility, not passion, and had no apparent hesitation over leaving their bed. In all honesty, it wasn't fact his wife overly minded. He was her third husband, and maybe the best of them so far, but that did not mean she liked him to speak of. She hadn't liked her first husband, lord Whitebeard-without-teeth, to differentiate him from his only son, the equally vile Whitebeard-with-teeth. When Whitebeard senior had the good grace to kick the bucket after only a month of marriage, Giselle had the good business sense to put a few drops of Dreamless into junior's wine cup. It had been a satisfying toast, and one that she would then rue for the next twenty years. While she had not been caught, so to speak, rumor was enough that the only eligible bachelor still interested was Lord Strumgard. She had wanted to poison his wine cup, too, but he was suspicious, at first, and cruel, later on. She still had the marks of his passions on her, and as far as she was concerned, the only decent thing he ever did was give her Samston. If only the boy had more of her blood and less of his father's, he might have been a good choice as the next Lord Strumgard. That would never happen as it was, though. The boy was far too weak minded and had not half the mental fortitude he would need to manage the trade empire she had so carefully cultivated. That young Montressor girl, though, she might have what it took. She had every intention of seeing her elder son wed within the year. Her younger son, though, she was just eager to see born. Preferably before she vomited out what was left of her internal organs. It was a rougher pregnancy than her last one, and this was the ninth morning in a row she spent emptying her stomach into the chamber pot. A most irritating morning ritual, and only made the more irritating by the fact that the bitch Caeca Luma looked resplendent in her own pregnancy, by now some three months further along than Giselle's own. As she dressed for the day and headed to a small study to break her fast with her son, she wondered how she would convince Zephaniah to ignore the other child. If there was a god, the babe would come out looking nothing like him. In her own chambers in a far wing of Castle Sterling, Caeca Luma was standing in front of her mirror, smoothing her robes over her belly and frowning at the bulge she saw there. She wasn't sure exactly what to make of the miniscule bump. Ought it be bigger? Was it too big? Was it too low, or too round, or too firm? "It's just fat," Ferox offered unhelpfully. Her brother, three years her junior and ceaseless joker, was sprawled lazily across her bed, one leg kicked carelessly over the side and his eyes half-closed. "You're what, two, three months along?" "Four," She insisted, rubbing at it. "And it's not just fat!" Truth be told, there wasn't much in the way of fa on her body. Three weeks had passed since she had woken from her coma, but she hadn't even recovered her old weight yet, and that weight had not been much. She was a frail woman, only five feet tall and not filled out at that. The bump in question stuck out barely past her hip bones, which were starkly defined against her concave belly. Tiny in every way, it came as a miracle even to her that she was carrying the child at all. But carrying she was, even if she did't have a glowing, golden pregnancy like the blonde bitch Giselle. The Luma siblings were both alabaster pale, and had the classic dark hair and grey eyes that marked the ancient line. According to legend, the moon herself had come down from the sky one day out of love for a mortal man. He was Arran of the Woods, and she was called Cinna Luma, but they loved each other dearly and she bore him eighteen children. Thirteen were daughters, fair and gentle, and five were sons, handsome and kind. Their descendants still lived along the river Lum, many thousand in number, but only those in which the Luma bloodline showed clearly could use the name Luma. Caeca had been hailed even as a girl for the purest Luma blood seen in generations. Her skin had no brown or tan to be seen, not a freckle or a mole or a blemish, and her hair was as pure and dark as a raven's wing. In Ferox there was a hint of color to his skin, a trace of blue to his eyes, and when he was lit by strong sunlight his hair had a deep chocolate hue to it rather than straight black. It was still a fairly strong Luma resemblance, as his magic was fairly strong, but it was not so strong as hers... and he had dodged the madness that often came with magic, too. "Well, then put some fat on it," he replied. "If you starve and miscarry-" "Don't speak that word in my presence!" She snapped, her eyes flashing dangerously. "Don't even suggest it." He held up his hands in surrender, rolling off the bed. "Forgive me, sweet sister. I misspeak when I am deprived of my love," The younger man joked, through not so blatantly as he had before. "You ought to marry this girl for all you speak of her," Caeca muttered. "But go, go to her before you lose your mind entirely." He gave her a cheeky grin as he left, chuckling the entire way. She wondered what he had found so funny about her statement, but shrugged it off after a moment. It had been thirteen years since they had last known each other, and she was just starting to unwrap the layers of mystery that he had developed growing into a man. He had only been twelve the last time she saw him; now he was five-and-twenty. Of course, she was eight-and-twenty and had probably changed even more. The most obvious change lay on the left side of her face. All her other injuries had magically healed, but the curse Isolden had put on her there to mark her as a traitress would last her entire life. While he right side of her face had pixielike beauty, the left side was a ruinous mass of scar tissue, without a strip of white skin in sight. The left eye was blind, the left ear deaf, and it was a miracle she had not lost teeth on that side. Two-faced she was physically, a reminder of the man she had once betrayed, and now killed. Two times now she had stood behind a man who promised her the world, and two times now she had lost everything. It was starting to feel like she was destined to come within touching distance of success, but never taste it. Ferox himself had doubts about his own fate. What would happen if they were caught? It was a question with no good answers. Though Lluvia was no theocracy, the various faiths and beliefs tended to agree on the subject of men like him, and where men's hearts went, their laws followed. For his own sake, he would not hide. He would fight the laws, fight them tooth and nail. He was well enough liked, powerful enough, had an Archmage for a sister- and the kingdom was so torn by other issues that no one would have the time or the strength to fight him, surely. If all else went wrong, he did not fear fleeing. He could find another life somewhere else, somewhere he could live as a man was meant to live, out in the open instead of hiding in nooks and corridors. Actually, he was hiding in a stairwell, but that was different. He would not jeopardize Sam, though. Samston was not like him. He could not just run away and start another life. He was a nobleman, son of the queen, rich and powerful. His blood was tinged with blue, and that life he could not just up and abandon, so Ferox would never risk asking him to. They were a strange couple, that was sure. He had the better part of a decade on his lover, who was just now a man grown. Where Ferox was moonlight and darkness, Sam was the son of the Golden Widow, a woman who was known for shining like the sun itself with her golden hair and bright eyes. He would meet his mother to break their fast that morning, like he always did. Today, Ferox had the foresight to lie in wait in the staircase closest to his room. The young nobleman was bound to come this way... and when he did, well, they would have just a few moments of privacy. It was a rare and precious resource, for they dare not act any differently towards each other in public. Ector's thoughts were also on his relationship. It was forbidden not by law but by association. He was perhaps the king's oldest confidant, a leal and true subject, who had been with him for some twenty years at this point. Through all of the years, through all of the battles and the assassination attempts, the starving months and the fat ones, the days when the young prince had wanted to give up and the days he had wandered so far afield Ector wondered if he would ever come home... through all that, nothing had swayed him from Zephaniah's side. And then she came along. Nyameh Vatrix. The daughter of the man he had worked so hard to kill, the rival claimant for the throne, the only woman who had ever held his attention for longer than a night. He had prayed and fasted, hoping to clear the fever from his mind, but to no avail. He was an old and road-weary man only a year shy of forty, while she was a decade his junior, fresh and fair as as summer morning. He did not understand what she saw in him (though he feared it was a path to get at Zeph) but he was too deep in love to question it. He knew he ought to tell his king. He ought to confess it all. Really, he ought to deny his urges, restrain himself, never lay hand... or mouth... or any other body part on her again. But oh, that was much easier said than done. He had promised himself three days ago that it would be the last time, and five more times had passed since then. Five! Where did she find the time, how did she know where to find him? It was madness. Like poisoned honey, it went down so sweetly but he knew the ending would be anything but. In his youth, Ector had wanted nothing more than to be a Paladin, to follow in the footsteps of his ancestors. The legendary sword Valkyrian had been passed from Aquila to Aquila for a thousand thousand years, ever since God sent the avenging angel Azrael to purge the land of fel beasts and nonbelievers. From the fallen star that had transported Azrael seven swords were forged. Meridian, Seraphian, Thraenian, Archarian, Araxxian, Nephaelian, and Valkyrian were the Seven Swords, and they had been passed from generation to generation ever since. When Valkyrian had landed in his hands, Ector had known his fate. Unfortunately, the Paladins had not agreed with his fate. Fresh off the steps of rejection, he had found Zephaniah and a new purpose in life, pledging the semi-mythical Valkyrian blade and his own life to the prince's service. He had been the one to teach the young man about honor and chivalry, how to hold a sword and couch a lance, how to dance and how to pray. Their age difference was just enough that Ector found himself both a father and a brother at times, and he looked fondly on the now-king as family. The only family he had, truth be told. And, in spite of the entire coup d'etat, in spite of the conflict between the Queen and the Archmage, in spite of the economic and social ruin, some things never changed with family. For twenty years now, they had started almost every morning with weapons training. Today they had chosen the lance- it had been too long since either of them had jousted, and the nobility were pressing for a tourney to celebrate the death of the usurper. Not that either of them were like to compete, given their status, but it seemed a relevant training. "Bring up your shield," Ector shouted down the lists. "You're open wider than a camp whore's legs!"