WHEN he looked upon the face of his newborn sleeping in her mother’s arms, the Nobleman’s heart broke under waves of unrelenting shame. He glanced at the rugs, the tapestries, the ornate bed frame, anything but the pale, dewy face of his blessed wife.
“Hello, Papa.” His wife’s voice was strained. She managed a weak smile and beckoned him.
His feet were lead weights. One step. He swallowed. “She’s beautiful,” he choked out.
Handmaids and physicians darted in and out of the vermillion room, dodging around him as if he were nothing more than another piece of furniture. If only, he thought. If only.
His marrow was mired in regret. Not for the daughter she had borne him—for he loved his little rosebud as any would love their own flesh and blood—but for the one he had no longer; the rose culled before it first turned its face to the sun. Its canes had been snapped and budding union shorn by jealous hands.
She could never know there had been another rose.
A familiar pat on the back whacked him out of his thoughts. The Noble barely glanced at the man he could never forgive. The rose-cutter. The cane-snapper. He may as well have been a walking blade. His name sat first on the growing list of betrayers: the man, his wife’s niece, the Noble’s own mother. Her—the “her” whose name he refused to know even as his bones ached with her memory, the lover who had not known she had been loved and the mother of his first rosebud.
Yet his white knuckles confessed what only he knew: he had betrayed someone, too.
“Artis!” His wife sang with far too much energy for someone who had just given birth. The Noble cringed at both syllables of the man’s name. His wife handed their daughter to the man, who cradled her like a careful bouquet.
“What is her name?” Artis asked through a watery Brisian accent.
“I think we’ll call her Igana,” she replied. “She takes after her papa’s nose, don’t you think?”
Both looked to the Noble as if to tease out an agreement. Shame rooted his eyes to the mahogany floor. Thank Leladya, he thought, that this child was born in Zoldonmesk, even if she is a child of war. Thank Leladya that she will inherit the powers others would deem the realm of men. His jaw clenched at the sight of Artis’ fine slippers. Thank Leladya that wretched cur can never cut her away from me.
The Noble approached his wife’s silk-sheeted bedside as he would the cage of a feral beast. “You’re right, my honey,” he murmured, quickly adding, “But her eyes must look like yours—red as garnets, I expect?”
Her expression soured. “‘My honey.’ Gods, you sound Brisian.” She turned to Artis. “You’ve had him down in that miserable swamp far too long, blueblood. But…” she looked back to the Noble. His heart thumped. “I am pleased you were so swift in reeling him back here. I have no idea what I would have done if I’d had to do this alone. But, I trust whatever business you two were carrying out is well ended. I dislike my husband residing so far from our home.”
“From now on, his attention is all yours, madam.” Artis laid the child upon her chest.
Her expression suddenly became serious. “Husband.”
He could barely bring himself to meet her gaze. Her eyes hooked into his skull and forbid him let go.
“You must promise you won’t leave me—us—alone ever again. I need you here with me. This war isn’t over yet.”
The room spun and his ears rang. Deep within his marrow, he felt it. The panging. Rose petals stamped on and bleeding in the rain. Don’t go. Don’t you leave me here. His stomach sat in his throat.
Already he had taken too long to answer. Swallowing, he said, “I will stand by you and my daughter until my dying day.” He stood still as a statue. His eyes fell upon the content face of his daughter. “I have only ever loved you.”
His daughter: the second. The first to turn her face to the sun in bloom and his only legitimate heir. Smiling, his wife gestured for him to sit beside her. For the first time, he held his daughter in his arms. “Hello, Igana,” he whispered. “Oh, how long I’ve already loved you.”
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