Ris was not disappointed to find his wife awake when he returned.

Surprising though she would have found it if she had known, Ris was not disappointed to find his wife awake when he returned. If Madra was still awake, she could not think it so very late.

To be certain, he said, “Oh! I’m home early tonight.”

'Oh!  I'm home early tonight.'

When he had left Sorin, he had also made a point of mentioning how late it was. Now, in the event Sorin and Madra compared stories, neither would notice that an entire hour had gone unaccounted for.

“Where were you?” she asked warily.

“With the elf Sorin.”

“Was the elf Vash with you?”

'Was the elf Vash with you?'

Ris saw no reason to lie. He had seen no sign of Vash in that hour. “No.”

Out of the habit of winter, he walked into the corner by the fire – but of course there was no fire. Madra would have fire no more, ever since her son had died.


Ris thought the absence of fire was a more poignant reminder of Lor than the habitual fire would have been, but perhaps that was his wife’s intent. Ris would not have minded so much if the cold had at least encouraged her to snuggle up against him in the bed.

“Do you know where he is?” she asked.

He realized after a startled, sickened moment that she only meant Vash and not their son. “No. Why?”

'No.  Why?'

He heard Madra’s slippery gown sliding over the bedspread as she rose.

“Because some few hours ago an owl flew in through Vash’s window, and moments later, Vash came down and rode away on a horse, in a great hurry.”

“Then why are you asking me whether Vash was with me if you saw him leave?” he whined.

'Then why are you asking me?'

Madra looked at him disdainfully and replied to his question with another of her own. “Where do you suppose he was going?”

“I don’t know, Madra.”

He pushed past her towards the door, though he dared not walk out. There was no answering her – she did not ask to be answered. His wife simply liked to keep her mind sharply honed, and she used his comparably dull head as a grindstone.

She used his head as a grindstone.

“Who sends an owl to the elf Vash when he wants him to come?”

“The unnamed elf,” he muttered.

“Who else there?”

“I don’t know – your brother.”

Madra slipped between him and the door. “Who else there?”

'Who else there?'

“I don’t know, Madra,” he pleaded before he had another idea. “The elf Lasrua.”

“Ahhh!” she smiled.

He could not help but smile at this slight encouragement. “Ahhh? Do you think Rua is the one sending for Vash?”

'Do you think Lasrua is the one sending for Vash?'

“I wonder.”

“But why?”

Madra wrinkled her nose. She only asked questions; she did not like to answer them. But then her bitter mouth relaxed into peace and her brows lifted slowly into languid arcs. Ris leaned hesitantly closer.

“Ris…” she cooed breathily. “I’ve been having a thought…”

'I've been having a thought...'

She swayed back and away from him, banging her hip against the pillar and sliding her body around it with a hiss of silk over polished stone. He could not help but imagine himself the pillar, and her dragging her body over his – but even in his imagination he dared not try to make her. He clenched his hands in helpless frustration until his gloves strained over his knuckles. But perhaps that was her intent.

'The unnamed elf will have a child when the winter is done.'

“The unnamed elf will have a child when the winter is done,” she murmured, sliding her back down the pillar until her hip jutted out towards him, taunting his hand. “Will he not?”

“With the Cat-​​woman?” He snorted. “It certainly looks that way. At least from the side.”

To his surprise, she smiled at his little joke, and he smiled back, dazed. He knew such sweetness could only mean she wanted something from him, but then perhaps he could get something from her.

He smiled back, slightly dazed.

“And is it not said that the men and women of that family have fire nature?”

He shrugged. “I wouldn’t know.” Then he had a startling thought – so startling he suspected Madra had already thought of it. “You don’t think – ” But if he were wrong, she would be cruel.

She cocked her head in encouragement.

“That the elf Vash is the father?” he asked weakly.

She snorted and nearly turned away in disgust. He had been wrong, though in this case he would rather not have been right.

He had been wrong.

“No, I do not think so!” she snapped. “The elf Vash and a woman!

In his imagination he asked her, “And your brother and a woman?”

“No,” she sniffed. “I think the child belongs to the unnamed elf. I think the Bright Lady has helped them, as she did the elf Silea all these many winters ago.”

Ris dared not reply. He could not always follow along the tortuous trails blazed by his wife’s keen mind. She forged on ahead, leading him.

“And do you know what I think, Ris?” she purred. “I think it has given the elf Vash an idea.”

'I think it has given the elf Vash an idea.'

She paused, smiling slightly and waiting, he feared, for him to guess her idea. Fortunately his wife had little patience.

I think he has realized that if his friend can have a child with a woman with fire nature, then he himself could have a child with an elf with water nature. An elf.

He shook his head slowly. “Vash would never. Not so long as the elf Iylaina lives, and not after.”

'Vash would never.'

“I don’t know, Ris,” she smiled, twisting one fair hand in the other, as if she could scarcely restrain herself from brutalizing him physically. “She is no longer bound to him. I think it must be very painful to love an elf who does not love in return.”

Ris continued shaking his head. He could never tell him so – and nor would Vash like to hear it – but if there was one elf who could understand Vash’s suffering, it was he. And still he did not think Iylaina was another Madra.

But Madra suddenly seemed to recall she wanted something from him, for she stepped away from the pillar and leaned her body towards his.

'One almost can't blame him.'

“One almost can’t blame him,” she sighed. “Except in his choice. Rua is utterly unfit for him now. She has been living with the men – who knows how they have polluted her?”

Ris shrugged the shoulder nearest her body.

“But our daughter…” she whispered.

He blinked up into her pale face.

He blinked up into her pale face, dazzled and surprised. Miria was scarcely ever “their daughter”. Lor had never been anything but “her son”.

“It would be so fitting, would it not?” she asked. “She has lost her husband to the men. Vash has lost his wife to the men. They could still be happy together. And think of how beautiful their children would be…”

Ris shook his head.

Ris shook his head, though he did not have the courage to stare his wife in the face. “He would never,” he muttered.

In his imagination he added, “Nor would I want him to.” If he were to go on living, he had to believe there was something worth living for – even if he would never have it. If he were to live, he had to believe there was love that did not die.

“What do you want from me, Madra?” he asked wearily as he began to feel her breath on his face. “Do you want me to find out for you?”

“I want you to give the elf Sorin the idea.”

'I want you to give the elf Sorin the idea.'

In his imagination, he asked her what she would give him in exchange.

He lifted his hand to the tousled ends of her hair, hesitantly, but she did not toss them back over her shoulder. He was sorry now he had left his gloves on; he had not touched her hair with his naked fingers in many moons. Her son had always plaited her hair, and since his death she would have it plaited no more.

He lifted his hand to the tousled ends of her hair.

She tipped her head back against the pillar so that her hair ran through his fingers, but she still did not fling it away, and now he could see through it to her white neck, almost as if she had meant to expose it to him.

She tipped her head back against the pillar.

In his imagination, she let him kiss it from cheek to collarbone. In his imagination, he braided her hair with his bare fingers into ropes to tie her hands and bind her bitter mouth, and he spread out her snow-​​white body on the bed to melt it with his tongue. In his imagination, she gave herself to him as she never had – as he had given himself to her.

Perhaps, if he made of her daughter the next Khóra

In his imagination, she gave herself to him as she never had.

“I shan’t see Sorin again before the morning,” he whispered.

Her nose twitched – or wrinkled itself so briefly it only seemed to twitch. His courage began to fail, though tragically not his desire.

He laid a hesitant hand on her hip.

Before he had even felt the form of her body through his glove, she whipped the backs of her fingers across his face, startling him, though tragically not surprising him.

“Keep your filthy hands off of me, Ris,” she growled. “I just had a bath.”

'Keep your filthy hands off of me, Ris.'