The morning of Brenden’s birthday, Catori woke to delighted shrieks and a four-year-old bouncing on the bed. She reached out to stop his jumping with one hand—it was far too early in the day for anyone to have that much energy, even a small child.
“Sweetie, stop,” she mumbled.
He dropped down beside her and laid his head on her pillow, beaming at her. “Baby today?”
“No.” A sleepy smile crawled across Catori’s face. “Not today. Today is for you.”
“I don’t care! I can share a birthday!”
She stroked his cheek, heartened by his excitement. She’d worried Brenden wouldn’t want a sibling or Doran, but Brenden was happy for both. “No. Probably not today, sweetheart. But soon.” She beckoned him into her arms and kissed the side of his head as he snuggled closer. “You’re four today,” she cooed. “My little hatchling is getting so big.”
Brenden frowned and blinked up at her. “I’m not a dragon. Why do you call me that?”
Catori’s smile faltered. There were plenty of painful questions she’d need to answer sooner or later, but that didn’t make it any easier. “Your papa used to call me little dragon. So, you’re my hatchling.”
“Why did he call you that?”
“He said I was fiery, because I fought so hard and beat him.”
Brenden grinned. “You beat Papa?”
“Oh, yes, many times.”
He giggled as Catori kissed him again. They lay there in silence and Catori took a deep breath. She enjoyed her son’s snuggles and the warmth of Doran’s body at her back. He was awake, but quiet; his fingers danced along her side in slow, deliberate steps.
Brenden became serious again and he gazed at Catori with an expression that usually meant more tough questions for his mother. She waited, quiet and wary.
“Why did Papa leave us?”
Sudden tears stung Catori’s eyes—where had they even come from? She hadn’t cried over Bitter for years. She forced a small smile for Brenden and stroked his hair back out of his face. “He didn’t want to leave,” she whispered. “He went to war, like I did.”
Brenden frowned. “But you came back.”
Gods, this never got any easier, apparently. She swallowed hard, but her smile wavered. “I survived. I lived and your papa didn’t. He died trying to make sure a whole army was fed.” She kissed his temple and held him close. “Your papa was a hero.”
“But why did he die?”
Catori let out a soft, humorless laugh. “You’re full of hard questions today.” Catori pulled him close and peppered his cheeks with kisses until he giggled. “I don’t have an answer for you, sweetheart,” she whispered. “But your papa loved you very much. Just the thought of you made him so happy.” That seemed to please Brenden and he smiled at her. “Come, let’s get up and have breakfast. What would you like?”
Catori urged him out of bed and crawled after him. “Get your nanny, I’ll make sure you get your strawberries.”
“Okay!” He darted out of the room as fast as his little legs could carry him.
Catori sat at her vanity with a sigh and began pulling herself together for the day. She saw Doran’s reflection in the mirror as he stood from their bed and dressed himself, silent and quick. He brushed his hair back, then left the room for his study; not a single word of greeting from him.
Once she was alone, Catori opened an ornate jewelry box and pulled a golden pendant from its depths. A dragon gazed up at her, its wings spread wide and its tail curled around a pale, yellow gem. Bitter bought the necklace for her what seemed a lifetime ago. She’d carried it for years, but put it away, along with the ring he’d given her, when she married Doran. She couldn’t bring herself to get rid of it altogether.
“You don’t have to hide it.”
Doran’s voice startled her, and the pendant slipped from her hand. It hit the vanity with a heavy clatter as her heart threw itself against her ribcage. She lowered her gaze at once, a little ashamed to be caught with the necklace.
“Jumpy today.” Doran came to her side and picked up the dragon pendant. His fingers turned it in his hand, then pressed it back into her palm. “I’m not competing with a memory. You’re allowed to grieve as long as you need. We’ve all known loss.” He bent to kiss the top of her head and retreated to his study again, this time with a book in his hand.
Laughter filled the air that morning and Catori relaxed in the presence of her friends. Niro and Anisa kept exchanging warm, affectionate glances. Herald roared and crawled around on all fours as Brenden’s mighty steed. The giant half-orc seemed to like playing with Brenden. Doran was his usual quiet self, but he was less restrained than he’d been before the Sanguinem war. His fingers toyed with Catori’s in midair; an idle sort of affection.
After breakfast, Brenden opened his gifts and Doran presented him with the sweater he’d knitted. “This is a special sweater,” Doran said. “These are your father’s family colors. Which family was he from, Brenden?”
“The Lemons.” Brenden grinned up at Doran. “Papa had a silly name.”
Catori laughed. “That he did. And he begged me to name you something normal. What do you say, Brenden?”
“Thank you, Doran,” he chirped. Catori smiled as Brenden reached up to hug Doran and her husband picked him up with ease to embrace him.
“There’s another gift for you, Brenden.” Catori winked at Brenden as Doran set him down. “It’s out front. Why don’t we go see?”
Doran helped her stand as Brenden ran to the front of the villa. He bounced on balls of his feet as he waited for them by the door, his eyes sparkling, and Catori laughed at his eagerness. She gestured for him to keep going.
Brenden yanked the door open and darted outside. A second later, he shrieked and his ecstatic face appeared in the doorway, his hair clutched in his fists and his eyes and mouth rounded.
“You got me a pony!” He squealed again and ran outside.
As they reached the door, Doran left her to scoop her son into his arms so he could pet his new pony. A gift from them both, he said, and Catori’s cheeks ached from smiling. Doran did a good job in Bitter’s stead. Their affection seemed genuine and Catori counted herself lucky. Their lives could’ve been a lot worse.
“They’re adorable together.” Tamara appeared at Catori’s side with a bright smile. “Have you given thought to squiring him when he’s old enough?”
Catori nodded. “His uncle offered after the war.”
“Ah.” Tamara nodded. “Well, if it falls through, he could be squired at Riverhold. Perhaps alongside my Henrik.” She touched Catori’s arm with gentle fingers. “The Rivers know bastards,” she said, with a voice as gentle as her touch. “They’re a family of them, after all. He’d be treated as an equal.”
“Thank you.” Catori slid her hand over Tamara’s and squeezed her fingers. “I appreciate the offer.”
“Oh, of course! Henrik adores him, anyway, they’d be adorable as squires.” She laughed and ushered Henrik out to join Brenden. “Now. Are we working today? Some etiquette lessons, perhaps?”
Catori nodded again and her smile widened. “Yes, please. And the feasts—we still have a lot to do.” She was grateful for Tamara’s help; she eased Catori into the world of nobles, a welcome stepping stool she was in dire need of.
Tamara beamed at her and clapped her hands together. “I’ll get your study ready for you!” She turned and hurried off, leaving Catori to watch as Doran settled Brenden on the back of his first pony.
Catori stepped into Doran’s study with one hand on her belly and the other braced against her back. Her mouth was set in a hard line, and she gave him a matching glare as she stopped before his desk.
He glanced up at her, noticed her expression, and cocked a brow.
“Doran, I need the guest list,” Catori snapped. “You said you’d get it to me after Brenden’s birthday and it’s been a week!” She shuffled closer, knowing she must look ridiculous with her scowl in place and the wide girth that made her waddle across the room. Not the least bit intimidating. Not that she could ever intimidate Doran. “I need that information. I can’t order the food if I don’t know how much I need!”
“Well, you could just… buy it all.”
He smirked at her and picked up a piece of parchment on his desk. “Right here.” He rose and brought it to her and his smirk widened as she snatched it from his hand.
Catori glanced over the list. Most of the names on it were vassals, or neighboring families. Nothing out of the ordinary. She’d expected most of the names, but needed to be sure.
One name scrawled at the bottom of the list made her stiffen. She sucked in a breath and forced a pained smile at Doran as hot anger flared in her cheeks. “Is there a reason the Bhukaris are on here?”
He hadn’t moved. Doran was no fool; he knew he had a fight on his hands. “They’re close to my territories.” His voice was even and calm, which only fanned the flames of her wrath. “I intended to invite them as a gesture of goodwill—”
Catori’s eyes narrowed. “Goodwill?” A low, dangerous note laced through her voice. “They tried to kill my son, Doran.”
“That’s—” he hesitated, then nodded. “An issue, yes. But not—”
“An issue?” Flames surged through her veins. “I will not invite them,” she hissed. “Sabbirah would’ve killed Brenden if it wasn’t for my master. She would’ve killed me to gain control of him if I hadn’t been at war!”
“Elric is not your master anymore. You are no longer a dragonknight’s apprentice. You are no longer in service to Sabbirah Bhukari. You are my wife, and you and Brenden are under my protection.” He stepped closer to her, but Catori shuffled back with a livid glare. Doran sighed. “It’s only out of a kind of courtesy. I don’t expect her to accept.”
Catori scoffed at him. Her hands balled into fists, crumpling the parchment in the process. “What about courtesy to your wife? What if she accepts? You expect me to welcome her into your home—into my home? Or is this not my home, too?”
Doran was stoic in the face of her fury. “This is your home, Catori. And she won’t accept.” His certainty should’ve given her pause, but Catori was too angry. “In fact, I’m counting on her viewing it as an insult—as though I’m dangling what she can’t have right in front of her face. Sabbirah knows we’ve married and she knows Brenden’s here. This invitation will only prove I’m fully aware of her past attempts to ransom the boy—”
“He was an infant!”
“—to the Lemons.” Again, he stepped toward her; this time Catori held her ground. “You might say I’m kicking her when she’s down. She’s lost Brenden, her dragonknight when Elric saved your son, and territory to Leford. She’s still recovering from the toll the attempted power grab took on her resources. The invitation is a little way of declaring she and I will never be allies under the guise of being friendly.”
He reached out to brush her hair back, but Catori slapped his hand away. At least her reflexes hadn’t softened from pregnancy. Doran’s expression hardened, and a brief flicker of red danced through his eyes—she’s angered him, but she didn’t care.
“You’d better hope she doesn’t come.” Catori’s words were venomous. “If Sabbirah shows her face in this villa, you can find someone else to play your fucking hostess.”
She turned and stormed out of the room—or rather, shuffled as fast as she could. It would’ve been a lot more effective if she could move with her usual speed and ease, but there wasn’t anything she could do to change it.
Catori marched into her study, slammed the door behind her, and threw the balled-up parchment at her desk. Sabbirah nearly took everything from her. Bitter’s death was an opportunity to the woman, even at the cost of a potential dragonknight. Catori returned from war to an infant that didn’t remember her, and a broken dream—she’d never be a dragonknight, or taste true freedom on the back of a dragon. Instead, she took Brenden and fled.
The fact that Doran saw fit to invite Sabbirah into their home set a fire in her veins the likes of which she’d rarely felt before. A howl of frustration caught in her throat and twisted to a tortured cry as a deep pain settled in her belly. She clutched her stomach and stumbled against her desk to steady herself.
As the pain subsided, Catori sank to the floor and burst into furious tears.
Doran found her there minutes later and paused in the doorway as Catori sat on the floor, unable to move, and sobbed. She felt his presence more than saw him, but could do nothing as he knelt at her side.
“I didn’t realize just how much this would upset you.”
She sucked in a haggard breath and shot him a wet, but still withering glare. “You d-didn’t r-realize?”
“I thought if you knew she wouldn’t come, that she’d view it almost as a threat, it wouldn’t matter so much.” His mouth twisted in a wry half-smile. “At the very least I should’ve spoken to you first.” He let out a long breath and reached for her. “I apologize. There’s no need to invite the Bhukaris. Come, come here.”
Her drew her into his arms and despite the rage that set her trembling and the violent shake of her shoulders as she sobbed, Catori sank into the warmth of his embrace. She gripped his tunic in her fists, grit her teeth, and fixed him with a seething look that would’ve made lesser men cower in fear. “Don’t you ever do that to me again.”
“You have my word.”
“No, no, no!”
Catori sat back in her chair with a groan and covered her face with her hands. Everything was wrong and the urge to cry was overwhelming—almost. She rubbed her tired eyes and let her hands fall away.
Tamara sat across from her with a worried frown. “What is it?”
“None of the butchers have the meat we need. Sabbirah Bhukari bought it all.” Catori gestured to the letter on her desk. It sat atop several more that claimed they’d sold their stores of lamb to the Bhukaris. It seemed Sabbirah was throwing an enormous harvest festival—so much for recovering from her losses. The butchers were almost out of beef and pork, too, but they had plenty of mutton and chicken. Terribly sorry for any inconvenience.
A week had passed since Catori and Doran argued. She’d sent out invitations soon after and every lord invited responded with their warmest thanks and promised to attend. But Catori had no idea what to feed them. Their own stock wasn’t enough to supply such a huge feast—almost thirty people were attending with all their retinues.
“Do they have nothing?” Tamara’s mouth hung open in quite an unladylike fashion.
“Not much. I’ll buy up the beef and pork, but any lamb will have to come from our own stock.” Catori rubbed the bridge of her nose, then sat forward with some effort to pen the letters. She’d already sent a few by their fastest hawks, but this last one she’d received had been the straw that broke the pregnant lady’s back.
A slow pain began to build in her belly until she groaned and strained against the desk, but it passed a moment later and Catori dipped her quill to set about writing. She hoped to reach the butchers before Sabbirah bought up the rest of the damn meat. Halfway through the first letter, another contraction made her pause and this time the pain worsened. She dropped her quill with a soft cry.
Tamara’s head snapped up. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” Catori gasped. “Just some birth pains. A little more frequent than usual.” She sighed and her shoulders slumped. “Could you find Evie? Get her to bring some chilled tea, please.”
“Of course.” Tamara stood and left the room.
Catori finished the letter uninterrupted, but as she folded the parchment another contraction came, and she groaned. It left her panting and convinced the baby was on its way. She struggled to her feet and left the parchment on her desk—the meat would have to wait. The baby wasn’t going to.
Excitement swept through her as she shuffled down the hallway to Doran’s study—he was always easy to find. He sat at his desk, reading over some papers spread out before him.
“Hm.” He didn’t look up, so engrossed was he. It wasn’t until another contraction made her stagger in the doorway that he finally raised his head. His brow furrowed, and his movements slowed. “Tori?”
“I hope you’re ready for this,” she panted. “You’re about to be a father—oh!” She felt a strange sensation between her legs, somewhere between a tickle and a pop, and fluid began to run down her legs. Catori groaned in exasperation. “Damn it! Why the hell can’t that ever happen when I expect it to?”
Doran rose from his seat and crossed the room with more speed than most men used their entire lives. He steadied her with a hand at her back and began to lead her into their bedroom. “You need to lie down. Now.”
“I’m just going to be hefted to my feet to wander around the room. I know how this works, Doran.”
Despite her words, Catori let him help her into bed and laid back with a sigh. He looked around the room with a creased brow and his jaw tightened. “Where the hell is everyone? Wasn’t Tamara with you?”
“I sent her for Evie.”
He grumbled something unintelligible, then turned for the door. “I’m going to get a healer. Stay here.”
Soon the room was full of activity. Anisa sat at her side with Tamara nearby as several maids bustled around prepping linen and trying to make sure Catori was comfortable. She waved them away.
“Tamara, I need you to finish those letters,” Catori instructed. “Use my seal, purchase all the beef and pork you can. And mutton, too.”
“Catori, you need to walk a little.” Anisa touched her hand with a worried look on her face. “It’ll help the baby come faster.”
Catori rolled her eyes. “So they say.” She brushed aside Anisa’s worry and forced a smile. “I’m more worried about the feast,” she lied. “The birth will be just fine.”
It should be, anyway.
“So, it’s just the meat, yes?” Tamara and Anisa exchanged a look, but Tamara wasn’t about to disobey Catori.
“Just the meat.” Catori groaned as another contraction hit her. Her fingers dug into the bedsheets and when it finally passed, she panted from the pain. “Meat,” she gasped. “And—and—”
“Enough work.” Doran strode into the room with a healer in his wake. “Tamara, Anisa, you may go.”
“But, Doran, the feasts!” Catori’s eyes widened, suddenly worried the birth would ruin all her careful planning. How could Doran brush it aside so easily?
“Tamara, Anisa, and Eustine can handle it. Go,” he ordered them. The women scurried out of the room together with numerous backwards glances.
“No.” He sat on the edge of the bed at her side and took her hand. “Focus on our child, Tori.” He took a wet cloth from a servant and smoothed it over Catori’s forehead with surprising tenderness. “This is more important.”
“Doran, please.” Catori gripped his hand tight. She needed him to understand the importance of the feast for her. “I don’t want to disappoint you.”
His expression softened and he gave her a small smile. “You won’t.”
The look in his eyes made her heart melt—until another contraction built up. “Ow, ow,” she gasped. Her fingers tightened on Doran’s hand and her voice trailed off in a moan.
Delphine, the healer assigned as midwife, parted her knees to make sure she was alright, then smiled. “Everything’s fine.”
“Oh, I know.” Catori sighed as the pain left her. “Not my first time. It is his, though.” She gestured to Doran. “He’s the nervous one.”
“I’m not nervous. I’m concerned.”
“There’s nothing to be concerned with.” Delphine offered up a reassuring smile. “Lady Spicer is young and there’s no reason for any trouble with this birth.”
A ripple of anxiety lapped at the edges of Catori’s mind. She hadn’t told Delphine her mother died in childbirth. Brenden’s birth was fine, so Catori saw no reason to worry Doran. He already looked a little helpless.
The delivery began around mid-afternoon and Doran stayed by Catori’s side the entire time. Delphine knelt between her knees and urged her to push with a gentle voice, until the buildup of pressure increased to the point Catori no longer needed her guidance. Doran didn’t seem to mind the way she gripped his hand, or her cries of pain right by his ear.
“Don’t push,” Delphine said. “Wait just a moment, my lady. I’ll tell you when to push again.”
“I know, I know.” Catori groaned through gritted teeth—the urge to push was excruciating. Every inch of her body demanded she force the child from her belly.
Doran brushed her hair back from her slick forehead and leaned in close. “You can do this. It’ll be over soon, Tori.”
The pain must’ve made her a little delirious, because his words struck her as hilarious. She giggled and her muscles contracted, prompting Delphine to give her a sharp look.
Catori sobered at once. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to. Is it alright?”
A moment’s pause; then, “You’re fine, my lady. Go ahead and push.”
After an age—or a handful of agonizing moments, depending on your point of view—it was over, for the most part. A servant carried the baby away to clean and a moment later its cries filled the room.
“You have a son.”
“A son?” Catori struggled to sit up, but Doran eased her back into the pillows.
Catori hardly noticed. As the servant returned with the newborn in her arms, Catori loosened her robe so she could cradle him against her bare chest. He was warm and his mouth gaped open as he cried, but the feel of her skin seemed to soothe him and he began to quiet. Catori gawked at him, struck dumb by the tiny new life in her arms. A little button nose sat in the middle of his round face and a smattering of dark hair lay slick against his head.
“Doran,” she whispered. “We have a son.”
Doran took their son while she finished with the delivery—the rest was a blur, save for a sharp pain she didn’t recall from Brenden’s delivery. It didn’t matter, though. She had another baby, another son, and she craved holding him.
When it was finished, Doran passed him back to her. Catori guided him to her breast and helped him to latch onto her. It took a moment, but he managed and began to nurse. Her heart swelled at the sight and soft, startled laughter escaped her.
“Look at him, he’s already hungry.” Catori barely noticed the servants bustling around the room, or Delphine checking between her legs. All her focus was on her baby.
Doran kissed her temple and cupped the baby’s head. “You gave me a son,” he murmured.
Despite her joy, Catori’s exhaustion got the better of her. She was helped to her feet while the servants stripped the linens from the bed and a new mattress was brought in. It was done with quick efficiency and Catori was helped back into bed soon after, to her relief.
It was unusual—she’d gotten her second wind quick after Brenden was born, but this time all she felt was tired, and weak. Even the sight of Doran cradling their son wasn’t enough to bring more than a wisp of a smile to her lips. All she needed was a little rest, though.
“My lady, I need to check if the bleeding’s stopped. May I?”
With immense effort, Catori opened her eyes and nodded once. She took a deep breath as Delphine lifted the sheet.
Delphine gasped and the color drained from her face. There was a flicker of blue mana as Doran hurried around the bed. “That’s not good.”
Catori frowned. Where was her son? When had Doran left the bed?
“What is it?” he asked.
“She’s still bleeding.” Delphine’s brow furrowed with concern and she gestured to the bed. “A lot, by the look of it. She should’ve stopped by now.”
“S’alright,” Catori slurred. “Hasn’t been long.” Both Doran and Delphine gaped at her and Catori frowned. “What?”
“My lady, you’ve been resting for nearly an hour.”
Doran rounded on Delphine in a fury. “How could you let this happen?”
Poor Delphine shrank under the intensity of Doran’s gaze and the keen steel of his voice. “I-it happens occasionally. I-I just checked after the delivery and it wasn’t anything abnormal! She seemed fine, I swear!”
Catori was unable to keep her eyes open anymore. Her mouth was full of sand, making her tongue stick to the roof of her mouth, and gods, she was so tired. “Doran,” she whispered. “I don’t feel right.” A bolt of fear sliced through her chest. Her fingers twitched, but she couldn’t bring herself to lift her arms. “Doran, something’s wrong.”
“Damn it!” Doran turned on Delphine again, but his voice was fading. “Fix this! Nothing can happen to her. If you don’t fix this, if my wife dies, I’ll—”