Serial: An Heir to Thorns and Steel, 21

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An Heir to Thorns and Steel
Blood Ladders, Book 1
M.C.A. Hogarth

Episode 21

      I walked to my parents’ house… by myself, without aid, without pausing to rest, without calling a carriage. I walked. The butler took my coat and I proceeded to the sitting room and there I settled on one of the chairs and accepted tea and waved off a plate of scones and then waved it back when I realized I was hungry. Me, hungry.
      When I set the plate aside I found my eyes wandering to the portrait hung above the mantle. I remembered how long we’d posed for it, or how long it had seemed to me then as a child of nine: interminable confronted by the stink of linseed, the stiffness of my dress clothing and the hard discomfort of the chair. But it had produced a lovely painting, the three of us, Father so stern and proud, Mother serene and pleased. The painter had even managed to make my wan complexion a thing of purposed contrast with the sleek darkness of my hair, more artistic than I imagined it had been in person.
      But for the first time I truly looked at my parents. My mother with her golden curls and light brown eyes, with peach on her cheeks… my father with nondescript brown thatch and earth-brown eyes, stocky and powerful body, short where I was tall. They had been rendered in smoky ochers, sienna browns and bright cadmium yellows, touched with pink and caramel. Against that overwhelming warmth, I was a small blot of alabaster and lamp black, my gray eyes with their black rims seeming too large and solemn, exposed without my spectacles.
      I looked nothing like them.
      My mother entered then. She had not changed much since the portrait; a few more lines in her face, perhaps, a little more silver in her hair, her edges softer. But she retained a grace born of modesty, of long practice managing the concealment of skirts and enshrouding wraps, and the simple powder blue day-gown she’d chosen flattered her. I rose to greet her, gathered her smooth, dry hands in mine and leaned down to kiss both of her cheeks.
      “What a pleasant surprise,” she said. “I thought you would be in school, love.”
      “I’m in retreat, working on my dissertation. I thought I’d stop by as I am likely to be too busy to for the next few weeks,” I said, letting her draw me back down to a seat, this time on the couch. “Father’s at work, I imagine.”
      “Fighting with the city council, yes,” she said with a smile. “They’ve been having a taxation issue.”
      “When do they not have taxation issues?” I wondered as she poured me a new cup of tea.
      “Sooth,” she said with a laugh. “But sometimes I think they forgo coming to any conclusion other matter for fear of having no other reason to meet.” She studied me a moment. “You look well, love.”
      The bandaged arm was hidden beneath my blouse, though I was surprised she hadn’t noticed it anyway. “Thank you,” I said. “I feel well today.”
      “Then… has there been… any news?” she asked.
      “No,” I said. “Stirley is just as confused as always. But I do have good days.” I nodded toward the portrait. “It’s been a while, hasn’t it.”
      She laughed. “Long enough. I’m glad I had that done, though. It’s good now that you’ve left the house. A comfort.”
      How does one ask one’s parents if you are really their son? I stared at the portrait, the warmth of the tea caressing my fingers through the thin porcelain wall of the cup. The eyes of my child-self met mine, so grave, already too well-acquainted with the durance of suffering. “Mother,” I asked. “Was I adopted?”
      Her cup paused on its journey back to the table; she set it down carefully before lifting her eyes to mine. In a motion as old as my memory, she touched my hair, brushed it back from my face. “Does it matter?”
      I closed my eyes. That was answer enough.
      “Morgan,” she said. When I remained silent, she framed my chin in her fingers and gently angled my face downward to meet her gaze. “How did you come to the question?”
      I should have anticipated that she would ask, but somehow I hadn’t. I didn’t know what to say. My eyes lifted to the portrait again, and she followed them and sighed a little, releasing my face.
      “Ah,” she said. “Sometimes it is the small clues.” She folded her hands in her lap. “Your father and I had… problems. But we dearly wanted a family. We brought you home from the orphanage as a baby and we have never regretted it. We love you, Morgan. We could not love you more if you had come from our own flesh.”
      “I see,” I said.
      She gathered my hand in hers and squeezed it. “It’s immaterial, love. Let’s say nothing more about it.”
      I smiled at her, let her draw me into conversation, the aimless pleasantries that belong to the visitor’s hour. It would have been a pleasure any other day; perhaps it was a pleasure on this one also, save that I did not remember feeling anything, anything at all. I found myself outside the house with no memory of how I’d gotten there. Shading my eyes and squinting up at the sky gave me no hint as to how much time had passed, for I seemed incapable of making sense of the position of the sun. My eyes watered, tiny lash-sized droplets flicked on the inside surface of my glasses. I took them off and cleaned them on the edge of my vest, mechanical, without attention. In similar fashion I hailed a carriage.
      “Where would you, sir?” the driver asked.
      No answer. I had no answer. Where would I go? Where did I belong?
      “Sir?”
      “Ah… the university, please,” I said blindly.
      The carriage lurched into motion. I stared at the buildings as they scrolled past and did not see them. I did not count the money I paid the driver; I did not feel the sun giving way to the clouds as I walked onto the campus, my gait stiffer than it had been in the morning.
      How well I knew this place. So well I could find the loveliest park in it without paying attention to myself, my feet or my surroundings. My head rested against the trunk of a tree; my eyes on the clouds knotting together in the sky, their gray edges cut from one another with incandescent golden rims. My breathing felt tight and strange, and I could not seem to calm it.
      I didn’t question their love for me. I couldn’t. But I’d always believed…
      A tremor ran through my body. Best not to finish the thought. Best to drift in comfortable numbness. Best to stop thinking–
      “Morgan?”
      I jerked my face up and then staggered to my feet out of courtesy, out of habit, my knees protesting. I steadied myself on the oak. “Ivy… I didn’t expect to see you here.”
      “I could say the same of you,” she said, smiling at me, head dipped a little so that her light brown curls fell before her face. She had two books balanced against her hip and her free hand was occupied with a spray of wildflowers. “I heard you’d gone on retreat… what are you doing here?”
      “Clearing my thoughts,” I said, stunned by her. She’d always had that effect on me. That modest, warm coloring, the peach softness of her skin, the charm of the freckles scattered over her nose. Her spirit shimmered beneath her surface, like the sun behind the clouds gathering over us.
      “May I?” she asked, pointing at the ground beside me.
      “Of course,” I said, and hastily pulled my coat off and spread it for her. She laughed and sat on it, smiling up at me.
      Ah God, God. She was so lovely. I sat gingerly beside her, forgetting the ache in my joints.
      “We’ve missed you at the chocolates,” she said. “It’s not the same with just me, Guy and Radburn. I like them, but… you and Chester belong with us.”
      “It won’t take us long, the retreat,” I said. “The work is going well.”
      “It was sudden,” she said. “The decision. It seemed… well, precipitous. Was there any reason?”
      So hard to lie to her, and so easy. “Eyre gave me an unbelievable find from Vigil’s athenaeum. A trove. I wanted more time to study it.”
      “And Chester?” she asked. “Radburn said he’d found a new topic. Something about the evil of kings.”
      I laughed. “We thought it would be appropriate given the patriotic bent of his parents.”
      “I can’t imagine he’s enjoying it,” she said, shaking her head and twirling the flowers in her fingers. “He was so happy with the language work.”
      “I’m sure he’ll return to it,” I said, smiling. “You can’t keep someone from what they love, not for long.”
      She glanced at me with an impish grin. “Philosophy or poesy?”
      I laughed. “Observation.”
      “A pretty sentiment all the same,” she said, smiling. She lifted her eyes. “Do you think it will rain?”
      “Maybe,” I said, just before a distant rumble replied. We both laughed.
      “And here I was hoping to spend my free period picking flowers,” she said. She looked at the ones in her hand. “Morgan… have you ever wondered… what next?”

***

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