She’d watched them approach from one of the tower’s higher windows. It wouldn’t do to be overly eager; she wanted to keep herself as level as possible through the visit if she could, though the news in her sister’s letters made it difficult. Astoria waited until the last possible second before turning away and trotting down the stairs. They should just be leaving the carriage now. The templars will see to the horses. Past the statue, through the courtyard, and–
“Astoria Trevelyan. Your guests have arrived.“
Ser Engels held one side of the massive double doors that kept them separate from the outside world open as she reached the landing, gesturing for her to accompany him through. He wasn’t bad, as templars went. Older, something of a fixture in the Circle, but always distant and formal. Astoria inclined her head to him as she passed, waiting for the sound of the door settling back into place before proceeding.
Being a member of the nobility didn’t afford her many privileges in the Circle and Astoria preferred it that way. There were enough artificial structures here to drive them apart, why encourage more? This single thing was the only privilege she actively utilized, and even then not very often. The Circle was a long way from her family’s home and as she’d gotten older and more independent, it became less essential to her family to check on her wellbeing or allow her time with her sister. When she did get to see them, however, it was always in private. A modest but still comfortable room on the outside of the tower had been modified to allow both the templars and the occasional mage somewhere to receive visitors in privacy, and this room was now Astoria’s destination.
She was nearly vibrating when Ser Engels pushed the door open. Her sister and her brother-in-law both looked up but didn’t speak right away, though her sister smiled. She looked worn out, a little pale, but that was perhaps to be expected. Astoria brushed past the templar into the room and moved to kiss her sister on the cheek. A hug would have to wait until she passed the bundle she carried off to her husband.
Then again, the bundle was the entire reason they’d come. For nearly a year Astoria had smiled at every letter as her sister’s excitement grew, but there was an unspoken apprehension as well. Her husband’s family hadn’t produced a mage in generations but there was no denying the increase in the number of mages being born in the Free Marches recently. It was enough to make any family nervous, and if Astoria was nothing else she was evidence that magic yet existed in the Trevelyan bloodline.
Concern about that had been placed on the back burner, however, when the midwife forced the expectant mother into bed for the latter half of her pregnancy. Astoria’s mail started arriving multiple times a week, usually just short missives about how dull being stuck in bed was, how her sister felt fine, then later how the baby was moving, how dull the baby must also be finding bed rest, how uncomfortable she felt, how much she resembled a bronto. Nothing in there even worth censoring if the lack of templar editing was any indication. Then there was a break, but the next letter more than made up for it: it contained a copy of the baby’s official birth announcement. That was two months ago and while Astoria had been able to celebrate quietly with a few friends, it was nothing like being able to congratulate her sister in person or, perhap more importantly, to greet the guest of honor himself.
After receiving a welcome hug from her brother-in-law–a good man who took his wife’s words to heart and held no fear of Astoria, though she was careful to never ask what he thought of mages in general and he likewise took care to never bring it up–Astoria turned her attention to the miniature person in her sister’s arms. “I’ve been practicing with sacks of flour and the occasional turkey, I should be fine,” she quipped as she slipped her arms around him, grinning at her sister as she lifted the baby’s head and peered down at his face. Her sister and her husband moved to sit and Astoria did as well. This would be easier without having to worry about keeping her legs under her.
“Boys aren’t beautiful, Tori. Call him handsome or elegant.”
Astoria laughed softly and shook her head. “I haven’t known many of them but I don’t think anything about a baby is elegant.” Her attempt at humor felt hollow, though, and after she finished speaking the room fell into a heavy silence.
As soon as she’d gathered her nephew up, the feeling in the room had changed. Astoria wanted to hold onto the peaceful joy of a new life as long as she could, but she also knew her sister needed to know. It meant planning this little boy’s entire life, which seemed like too much to ask of someone so small. This was also, Astoria knew, as close as she would ever come to holding a child of her own. A monthly ritual for most of the young mages here capable of bearing a child: lining up every morning for a week to receive a spoonful of seeds, green and bitter, washed down with a mouthful of wine for the taste, even for the youngest. Not every mage chose it but those who didn’t knew the potential consequences and they weren’t ones Astoria was prepared to face.
That was just another part of life here, but her willingness to go along quietly was part of what allowed Astoria to have the family moment she was having now. Family. Her blood family, or at least the part of it that still cared about including her in these moments. It was a little bigger now, expanded by a boy with his father’s eyes and his mother’s nose and forehead. He would be so handsome. She could only hope that she realized it in intervals rather than as a slow process, but there was only one way to be sure.
“Hello, Nikhael.” She stroked a finger over his cheek, careful to turn it so the worst of her staff calluses wouldn’t touch him. “I’m your aunt Astoria, and you’re beautiful. Nobody tells boys that when they’re older but I’m gonna tell you now. You’re a beautiful young man.”
As soon as she touched his skin, she could feel it. The same resonance she felt when she took the hand of a child to lead them away from the doors and their parents and their life, or when a young man laid his head on her shoulder and wept in fear as she combed his fingers through his hair to comfort him. The same resonance that was absent a week later, replaced with a brand on his forehead and a vacancy in his eyes.
It was part of why they’d made the trip. There was no certain way to know if a child was a mage until they came into magic of their own, but mages knew their own. Of course, with no mages living outside the Circle, or at least none who would be willing to come forward to determine the fate of a noble child, the options for finding out when a baby was still young were limited. Most families simply had to wait, but the Trevelyans had Astoria. She’d resisted at first, telling her sister that riding all the way to the Circle while pregnant wouldn’t benefit anyone since she’d never heard tell of anyone being able to feel anything that early, but she knew if she wanted to see her nephew at all that it would be an inevitability. And now they all had their answer.
The thought of keeping it a secret crossed her mind but as soon as it did, she realized she’d already given herself away. A fat drop of water rolled down her cheek, a warm trail over skin that had gone cold as soon as she’d touched his face. She heard her sister gasp, saw her husband moving out of the corner of her eye, but she never took her attention away from Nikhael. His parents had one reality to face now but it was one Astoria was already living and had lived for fifteen years. She couldn’t do anything to change his future but she could, she would, do everything in her power to protect him from the worst of it. She would be his shield.
His face grew blurry as more tears welled up, but Astoria left the sobbing to his mother, instead just letting the tears spill over of their own volition. Nikhael Trevelyan, a beautiful and beloved son and nephew. All the questions could be answered later, delayed as long as possible even if it was just a matter of time. There was no point talking about training or schools now, no value in explaining the process of a Harrowing to a devastated mother. Everything Astoria had to offer now was for him anyway. There was nothing she could say to heal her sister’s heart.
Instead she kissed his forehead, tickled at his chin, freed one arm from his blanket so he could put one impossibly tiny, soft hand around her finger. He’d hold a staff soon enough but for now Nikhael should be allowed to hold whatever he wanted. If only he could remember this later, that there was someone waiting here who loved him and would give him everything she could. He wouldn’t, though, and chances were neither would his parents. This would be a shadow over all his childhood, the knowledge that eventually he’d end up here. Astoria would remember enough for all of them, but not right now. She’d have a lifetime to create that. For now she wanted to hold him in her mind like this as long as she could, memorize him being small and perfect and free.