"I am most pleased with your progress, milady," Orien smiled as he rubbed his hands over the extended belly of the princess. "The little ones seem quite content for the moment, but I will be greatly surprised if they do not make their arrival within the fortnight."
"Does this mean I will be allowed out of my bed, Healer? While I have most gratefully appreciated your food and care these past days, I fear to lose my reason if I am confined a moment longer," Grilda whined.
"You may indeed go about supervising your servants, milady," Orien told her. "Up and about, you may get, but back to work, you may not. You will once more live the pampered life of a princess of the realm until your children make their entrance to this life."
"What servants are these you speak of?" Grilda questioned. "I have no servants."
"But of course you do, milady," Orien said dismissively. "They are by name and profession, Orien, your healer and chef, Juram, your housekeeper, Ker, your scullery boy. He insisted on that job as he said he needed to keep up his practice lighting fires with his magic. It's a bit hit or miss, I'm afraid, as he fears the destruction a mistake could cause, so bear with him and praise his successes heartily, if you would be so kind."
"I can only hope that my born children are so eager to help their poor mother as you and your compatriots, Orien," Grilda smiled. "And rest your fears for Ker; I will never have a disparaging word for my little sorcerer mouse. I believe he and his brother and their friends have been most helpful in training me to be a mother to these little ones."
"One of your blessings will be a girl, milady," Orien pointed out.
"Yes, but as a girl myself, I am prepared for her," Grilda smiled again. "Now let me out of this bed. I wish to see my kitchen and…."
"And watch as Juram and I prepare lunch," the healer finished for her with a stern look.
"Yes, Healer," the princess agreed less than happily.
"You are still under my care until those blessings are born, milady. I have given my oath to your good husband that they will come into this world healthy and strong. I will not let anyone break that vow, not even you."
"For a child yourself, you are quite formidable when you wish to be," Grilda observed. "Though if I were to swear it in front of the king, you seem to have grown up quite a bit since your arrival at my home."
"I… ummm… I don't know what you mean, milady," Orien stammered, suddenly nervous.
"From what my little mouse tells me, you spend most of the time you are not with me or in the kitchen staring at a certain paladin of your number as well."
"I should leave now and let you dress, milady," Orien squeaked, blushed profusely, and rushed to the door. "I will be back to…. No, I shall send someone to help you down the stairs to the kitchen, once I have a chair in there for you to rest upon."
"Orien, wait. My apologies for discomforting you," Grilda called out soothingly. "Come, sit by me and we will speak. In matters of my health, you may be the healer, but in matters of your heart, perhaps I can be of help."
"None can help, milady," Orien sighed as he flumped onto the bed beside her. He leaned into her side as she wrapped an arm around his shoulders. "He thinks of me as naught but the baby he helped to raise. A brother and nothing more," he whispered as a tear rolled down his cheek.
"Oh, my poor young friend," Grilda cooed as she went to kiss the top of his head, but finding it now above her face rather than below, her lips touched his cheek instead. "I do not believe that is the truth at all, but perhaps you should tell me from the start of your tale. And pray, do not leave out the secret you hide under this cloak, for I can assure you, I am no fool to believe that you are malformed when I have my arm around the hump you hide from the world. I swear to you on my life and that of my children to come, I will keep your secrets to my grave if you ask it of me. I only wish to repay you in some way for your care of me."
"I should speak with my fathers, but my heart tells me that you will keep your vow to me," Orien said as he stood up, and stepped in front of her, but facing away as he removed his cloak. His black wings shook and stretched out a bit, but to his surprise, he couldn't unfurl them completely in the room. "It would seem I have grown a bit," he mused aloud.
"They are beautiful," Grilda whispered in awe. "I thank you for sharing this with me, for I am not caught unaware. I have met others of your kind when I was younger. My father took me with him to islands far to the west where I beheld a whole city of your people. He made trade agreements with them and they were good friends to him and to me."
"You know of more of my kind?" Orien gasped excitedly. "Perhaps even some of my kin?"
"Wicked soul that I am to raise your hopes so, only to dash them so soon," Grilda berated herself as she drew the young birdman to her side once more for a hug. "When my father was slain, and my brother took the throne, he took legions of ships to the Western Seas disguised as a merchant caravan. He made war on those island peoples who had only ever shown us kindness, generosity, and faith. He slaughtered them all, down to the very last chick and egg. I am so sorry, Orien."
"All of them gone?" the little healer whispered softly as tears rolled down his cheeks.
"My brother is a horrible and cruel man, young one," the princess wept with him. "I counted many of those he slew as friends, just as I do you now. I pray that your new family will avenge your old family and your people. Brother or no, an evil tyrant does not deserve my father's throne."
“I vow vengeance for both your families,” Tarel spoke firmly. “My apologies for interrupting your talk, but I was sent to fetch My Hummingbird before Juram desecrates our dinner beyond repair, if it is not already so.”
“What has the kitchen menace done now? I left plain instructions. Do nothing but stir,” Orien grumped as he stormed out of the room and down the stairs.
“How much did you hear?” Grilda questioned the young paladin. “And what will you do with what you have heard?”
“I heard enough, milady, I heard enough,” Tarel confessed with a bit of a blush. “He is wrong, you know. I do not see him as only a brother, but I had no thought that he could feel the same. I was there the night his true mother fell to the floor of my mother’s hut and I heard her name him with her last gasp of breath. I was beside him when he broke from his shell in my bed. By the powers, I am more his father than his brother, and certainly not his lover, but I cannot stop what I feel.”
“He is a remarkable soul, your hummingbird, but I sense he is not the only one to hide things in this house,” Grilda observed as she nodded to the turban around the teen’s head and the heavy breeches that he wore at all times, no matter how warm the day.
“If Orien trusts you, I shall as well, Princess,” Tarel announced as he removed his headgear. “I beg your leave not to show you my tail, as I would need expose too much of myself that would not be proper.”
“You are feline,” Grilda gasped as she stared at his furry ears sticking up out of his slightly messy hair. “Does the cloth not lessen your hearing?” she asked. At his slightly embarrassed nod, she declared, “No more hiding in my house, my good warrior. I believe you to be here to protect my family and yours, and I will hear of no reason that you limit your abilities to hide your strengths. You may feel it necessary to hide your form outside these walls, but inside them, I insist you be at your most comfortable, and your best.”
“Thank you, Your Highness,” Tarel answered with a deep and sincere bow.
“Will you help a feeble woman down the stairs, my paladin? I wish to see the folly of Juram in the kitchens for myself,” she asked.
“Your wish is my command, My Princess,” Tarel smiled as he took her arm as escort. “It is a sight to behold, I assure you. Last night, I went to bed with my sides aching from laughter at his antics. He is most sincere in his attempts to be helpful for all that his efforts are anything but. For one raised in kitchens, he is the most unskilled chef I have ever heard tales of in my life."
"He is a good boy as are you all," Grilda smiled. "Mayhap he has not yet found his strengths."
"Boren might say otherwise," Tarel snorted and then quickly covered his mouth with a hand. "A thousand apologies, milady. I should not have spoken so coarsely in your presence."
"I heard nothing coarse, paladin," Grilda said pointedly. "Your fathers will not hear of it from my lips, either. I think it sweet that there is so much young love in my home, your fathers included, even if theirs is not so young a love as much as love found once again."
"You know of Boren and Juram, and my fathers?" Tarel stumbled a bit on the stairs. "You will not have them before a village council for… well, being as we are?"
"Certainly not, and even if I did, it would be my husband at the head of that council, and he has known your fathers since his birth. He would not judge them for finding their love and happiness."
"If that could only be true for all," Tarel mumbled quietly.
"Nor will any other be judged in this house for where their hearts lead them. Do not think that I did not hear you add yourself to their disposition, paladin. Not that I needed the confirmation. One has but to watch the way you and my healer watch each other with every stolen chance."
"I do…" Tarel started to deny, it but then gasped, "He does?"
"Yes and worries himself to near tears that you will never see ought but the tiny chick that hatched in your bed, I am told," Grilda informed him. "I will tell you a little something, young lion. There are many that speak of the passion of new love that consumes every waking thought. Not much is written or said about the love you grow over a lifetime together, first as playmates, then as friends, later confidantes, and finally lovers. Rather than a fire to burn away any and all else in your life, this is a gentle, comfortable love that does supports and defends with every breath with no second thought or regret. I know of women who met their loves later in life, and while they seem happy for now, I would not trade my place for theirs for all the gold in all the realms. Moreso, I tell you that a wasted moment even if spent in lesser happiness can never be gotten back."
"He is still young and small, my Princess," Tarel protested.
"Cat feathers," she snorted. "You watch him every moment, but you do not see him."
"Cat feathers??" Tarel repeated with a smirk. "Did you make a jest, milady?"
"Perchance, perchance not," the princess shrugged innocently. "Time will judge. For now, you should look with your eyes open," she added as she pointed into the kitchen.
Orien sat at the table in the kitchen, his wings exposed but drooping down his back clearly indicating his sadness. "This was to be a special dinner, Juram," he whined pitifully. "Not only is the princess Grilda allowed out of her bed at last, but today is five years since my lion got his human claws. He will think I have forgotten because our meal is ruined."
"My human claws?" Tarel asked as he stepped into the room and laid an arm across Orien and his drooping wings.
"Yes, your throwing knives," Orien answered with a blush. "I called them your human claws because you are as deadly with them as you are with your cat claws."
"That is so cute," Juram gushed. "Orien, I beg forgiveness for the ruin of your special dinner. I never intended ruin, I swear it."
"You never do," Carzier laughed. "Nonetheless, you are the bane of the kitchen, my friend."
"How your good mother despairs of your presence in her place of work," Boren added, laughing as well.
"I try my best," Juram pouted. "It must be truth; I am good at nothing but chaos and trouble."
"I wouldn't say that," Boren grinned. "I can think of some few things at which you quite skilled indeed."
"Did I not tell you, my Princess?" Tarel snorted with an eye-roll of fond exasperation.
"Princess!" all the other boys blurted at once and jumped to their feet then bowed as graciously as their embarrassment allowed. "Milady," they all greeted as she came to sit where Orien had been.
"Tell me great assassin of meals, what exactly did you do to the dinner? There may yet be a chance of saving it," Grilda questioned as she waved them all off their knees. "In this room, I am no princess, but only a wife and soon-to-be mother. Save your deference for the public my beloved band of buffoons."
"Milady, what is a buffoon?" Ker asked as he walked in from outside, holding a precious handful of flowers which he presented the lady with wearing his biggest, and proudest smile. "I conjured them after seeing the real ones in the garden, milady," he told her in a loud whisper.
"What great skill you have, my sorcerer," she smiled and deposited him on what was left of her lap alongside the belly full of her own children. "A buffoon is one who is too old to be a boy and too young to be a man," she told him with a mild glare at the others in the room.
"Am I a buffoon?" he asked with a small frown.
"Never, my little love," she answered with a kiss on his nose. "You are my mouse who roars with magic."
"Did you hear that, Carz? I roar," the tiny boy bragged proudly. "Oh, I bet Tarel roars better than me."
"Differently, little man, not better, never better," Tarel told him with a sincere smile.
"Back to our food, what have you done, Juram, that Orien and I may yet save all our stomachs?" Grilda smiled.
The meal was indeed saved and both Juram and Orien learned a good bit from Grilda as the three tweaked and sampled and added to the dinner until it was something none of them had ever prepared before, but was very tasty to all who partook of it.