S Thera Winter

The majordomo objects, but a low snarl silences him. The townhouse staff know better than to argue, and the lady of the house is clothed in thick furs and hide boots. The hood and the darkness of the 23rd hour will hide her face.

"Do… do take care, my lady. The nights in Lord's Crossing are colder than you're accus…." The maid doesn't finish her sentence. Her mistress is already out the door. They know not to follow. She wants solitude for this.


"Oh Sextes fucking Jylis….S'thera, not again…" A daughter of the Scarlet Empress herself is not accustomed to finding her own daughter still asleep in bed on the cusp of the 13th hour, alongside some girl she's never even seen before… "If it's another commoner girl…" She hauls back the covers; beneath, they're both quite naked. The girl, at least, has the wherewithal to jolt awake; her daughter is either too drunk or too hung over to notice, and continues her deep, droning purr of a snore.

"Collect your things and get out." The girl's paralyzed with terror, and V'neef sighs. "I've no interest in making your life miserable, child. That's for her." She glares at S'thera. "Go on." The girl wisely makes her exit. At least she's got taste, V'neef thinks of her daughter, even if she hasn't got the wit to pace herself. She crosses the room and draws the curtains; the summer sun streams in through the window.

"Auuugh…. mmmf…." S'thera rolls over, squinting blearily. "M…mother? Close the blinds, it's too early…." She pulls her pillow over her head and steadfastly ignores her mother; but she will have none of it, and tears the pillow away from her. Feathers fly.

"It's nearly the 13th hour, S'thera! Midday!"

"Hmmmf?"

"How late were you up with that girl?" She doesn't need to bother asking if drink was involved.

"Uh… third hour? No, fifth, heard the guard change announced…." She rubs her eyes and tries valiantly to sit up, yawning. "Just five more minutes, mother…"

"S'thera, for Pasiap's sake, get out of bed this instant, or I'll drag you out by your ridges! No, leave the robe!" she shouts as the beleaguered young woman drags herself upright. "You are going to sit there and we are going to have this conversation right this dragons-damned instant!"

"Mother, you're overreacting…."

"Mela's tits, I'm overreacting!" S'thera finally realizes how angry her mother must be to curse like this, and the thought is far more sobering than cool air or bright sunlight.

"Mother, listen… you yourself said that… that it's normal, to cut loose after secondary…" She folds her arms over herself, finally waking up enough to be embarrassed. "And, I did attend the House of Bells… at your request. It's not a charm school…"

"S'thera, you are twenty-two years old. You have spent far longer than your brother or sisters 'cutting loose.' And from what I've heard, you started cutting loose a lot earlier than they did!" S'thera can't help but grin at that; pleasant memories of the brothel in Sword, mostly. The ladies there… "S'thera!" No, no, think about that later. "Listen to me! This is not your father's House! It is mine! Some Houses have enough lineal descendants that they can afford to piss away a few on wasted lives! My House cannot afford that luxury! There are only so many of us, and we need every hand at the ready, and it is time for you to begin acting like an adult!"

"I… well… "

"Do you have any idea, S'thera, any idea at all, how impossible you are making it for me to find you a suitor? I've finished arrangements for your younger sister's betrothal to that Sesus boy, but I still can't nail down anyone for you! Now why do you suppose that is? Hmm?"

"Well…."

"It's because they all think that any marriage to you is going to be nullified in 50 years for failure to produce issue!"

S'thera's jaw drops. "MOTHER! You know perfectly well that… that everything's working down there!"

V'neef sighs, and rubs the bridge of her nose. "That's not what I mean, S'thera. They think you won't produce issue because they think you won't so much as visit your marriage bed once because you've no interest in men!"

"I do too have interest in men, mother!"

"You've never once shown it, as far as I or anyone else can tell!"

"Well… I did, once or twice…"

"And?"

"And…."

"And?!"

"And I abhor the taste of maiden tea!"

"I'm sorry, you what?"

"I abhor the taste of maiden tea! And, well, why have maiden tea, when I can just have maidens instead?" A silence pervades the room, until, slowly but surely, V'neef cracks up laughing.


The house staff was right; the nights in Lord's Crossing are cold. The dead of winter has birthed a storm unlike any she's had to make her trek through on any year before, with snow driving against her, piling in foot high drifts in places. Even through her boots she can feel the crunch, crunch, crunch of the snow as she trudges through it.
She can't see a thing. The lamps are all out, couldn't take the wind even if they were lit. It doesn't matter. She knows every step of this journey. Twice before she's made it. The first time, she searched for hours before she found him. The second time, she knew right where to look. It'll be no different this time, even in the blinding storm. She can feel where to go. It comes naturally to her.


"There, now, just so…"

"Mother, you've adjusted that comb twenty times. They've already agreed to the betrothal, little details aren't going to matter at this point." She nervously brushes the hibiscus stems at her temples back over her ears.

"And you've had your ridges pruned?"

"Mother, I'm not 12 anymore, I don't need to be reminded about basic hygiene!"

"Alright, alright… I worry. It's a mother's duty to worry. And first impressions are very important, S'thera. Particularly for someone with such a … unique… past."

S'thera blushes and looks down. "Mother, you know I've cut back…"

"You've done admirably the last couple of years, dear, yes," she says, lifting her daughter's chin. "But that doesn't undo all the work you put into building that reputation, you know. Getting you betrothed to House Tepet was a stroke of luck. That and your Gateway tournament championship. Really, I think that's what put you over the top for them." She smiles. "Just be yourself. For once, that's precisely what the situation needs. Open up to him. Be charming. And here's the big secret: he's just as nervous about meeting you as you are about meeting him. Don't let him smell your fear. Men can do that, you know."

"Mother…" But she can't help but laugh.

"Tell you what… it's a lovely night out. Why don't you go wait for him on the balcony?"

"If you make this setup any more romantic, I think one or more of us might vomit." She bows to her mother, grinning.


But in the end, all their plans came to naught. Like the snow, it could only endure so long before melting away into nothing.


"S'thera?" A voice from the doorway. She turns, and there he is, clad in his finery, the House Tepet mon on his shoulder.

She smiles. "Kedus. I wondered if you'd remember me."

He laughs. "The third-year who won the affection of the lovely Annelise? How could I forget. May I?" An open hand, directed at the marble bench S'thera sits on.

"Of course, sit." She's only met him a few times, years ago, when he was an upperclassman at the House of Bells. There were no sparks between them then, though he was certainly attractive enough, and has only improved with age. And yet, as he takes his place beside her, she does feel … something. "So. A commission in the Tepet Legions?"

"Only a captain. But that just means there's room for improvement." He grins; his fangs are sharp, and his goatee is rimed with ice. A good choice, at least in terms of his bloodline. "A shame it'll delay the wedding, but I suppose one can't have all the luck."

"Of course not. Besides, it'll make things all the more dramatic when you return all covered in glory, with lots of terrible stories to tell about the local women at your stag party."

"That'd be nice." He laughs. "Too bad the Legion's being posted to Linowa. Linowa, of all places. Bunch of dragons-forsaken huts in the wilderness. Why we're bothering to keep the slightly more barbaric barbarians away from this particular set of barbarians, I'll never understand."

"Ah well. Have to start somewhere." House V'neef has no Legion, only a House Guard, which S'thera commands, being the family's only graduate of the House of Bells. No foreign adventures for her.

"And you'll wait for me, of course." The sarcasm is so thick a daiklave couldn't cut it, and she laughs.

"Not to worry, I'll find plenty of cute girls for us to share when you get back. We'll throw you a party!"


The last step. The marble wall looms before her, inlaid with names. Some merely in silver; a few, here and there, scattered amongst the rest, with jade in all five colors. Each of these names belongs to a Tepet, slain in the Valley of Shards by the Anathema Yurgen Kaneko, the so-called Bull of the North.

Tepet Kedus. Delicately carved, and inlaid with blue jade, his only memorial; like so many who were lost in the Valley of Shards, his remains were never recovered. She peels off her glove, tracing the name with her fingers. The chill, soaked into the wall by the long night, bites at her, reminding her of his touch. The few times she was able to enjoy it before he left. The last kiss he shared with her that left her tears frozen on her face.

"Hello, Kedus." He doesn't answer, and the howling wind, barely broken by the wall, carries her whisper away.
"V'saren had her baby. A boy. D'ranen. And remember how D'samis pitched a fit about being sent to the Cloister? He's finally settled in. Still sends grouchy letters to mother. But at least we don't have to worry about him taking any vows while he's there.

"Oh. I rode in the Qishi Grand Prix. Eights and nines all round. Proud Mountain did very well. You remember him? The little yearling who sneezed on you?" She can't help but smile at the memory. "He's a fine stallion now. I think it's time to start breeding him.

"… I miss you. I miss you so. Mother says I need to move on, but… I mean, I have, it's just… I haven't forgotten you, Kedus. I don't think I ever could. I know that sounds silly, we only had a few months, but…" She sighs. "I've taken other lovers. I know that wouldn't bother you, after all we said and did together…Mother still hasn't found another suitor. Some time was needed, of course. For mourning. And I haven't exactly been enthusiastic, either. And… things are getting worse.

"The Houses are all pulling apart, Kedus. All set at each others throats, trying to position themselves for the throne. Nobody says it out loud, but we all know she's not coming back. Not this time." She spares a thought for her Grandmother, the strong, icy woman she met only thrice before she vanished. "Your family… your House isn't doing so well. Mother's ruled out any marriage there, but I don't know that I could, anyway. Not after you… I've kept in touch with your mother, though. She'll… she'll always be a dear friend to me." She leaves the for your sake unspoken.

"I'm worried for my House… and for yours. I wish you were here… the Realm needs more sons like you. If we're going to keep things together." She draws back her hood and rests her forehead on the icy marble. She promised herself she wouldn't cry this time.

The first year, she made the mistake of attending the anniversary in daylight. She wept when Kedus' name was read. Not the appropriate, quiet tears a lady of the Dynasty is meant to shed, but ugly, red-faced, sobbing tears. She wasn't the only one, but she still couldn't let herself face that again. The second year, she came alone, at night, like this time. Again, she wept, in an only slightly more dignified manner.

"I love you, Kedus. Whatever life you've earned, be it union with the Immaculate Dragons or rebirth… I hope you're happy. And I hope we can meet again." She kisses the cold marble, the frozen jade, and turns to go.
She promised herself no tears. As she retraces her steps, fading in the heavy snow, she breaks that promise.

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