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“WELL, WELL. LOOK what the dragon dragged in.” The first person Taryn saw when Rhiddyl pulled her into a courtyard on the far side of the infirmary was Stirla, lounging entirely at his ease on a bench, with a baby nestled in the crook of his arm.
While Rhiddyl rushed to coo over his shoulder, Taryn was a lot more cautious as she picked her way across the open flagstones. It was a beautiful little garden, even this late in the cool autumn season. Dwarf maple trees and a small beech brandished coloured flags on their fading leaves in shades of red, purple, copper and gold. They’d already scattered a light layer over the pale stone, turning this corner of the austere citadel into a warm nook.
“They’re all inside,” Stirla said, as Taryn hesitated beside the fountain, too wary to approach any closer. “Kilai was fussing and nothing but an Uncle Lyrai story would do. Because dadas aren’t any fun, are they, Treasure?” Since he was pulling silly faces at the bundle in his arms, Taryn assumed that last bit wasn’t aimed at her.
She crept a little closer. If Lyrai was inside reading stories to Stirla’s son, chances were Milluqua was in there too, putting the children to bed. She’d forgotten the earl was here, having left Nimbys a month or more ago to help Mhysra during the birth. Speaking of Mhyrsa, where was she?
Taryn looked around again, but seeing no family member about to pounce on her from the shadows, she finally crept up to Stirla and looked at the bundle his arms.
It was very small, even wrapped in blankets and shawls, with a thatch of black hair that half-covered its face. Huge blue eyes stared at Stirla as if he was the most fascinating thing on the Overworld. A hand of impossibly tiny fingers had seized the captain’s finger and was clinging for all its might.
“Isn’t she the most wonderful thing you’ve ever seen?” Rhiddyl breathed.
Taryn barely restrained herself from rolling her eyes. Stirla caught her struggle and winked.
“Here, why don’t you hold her?” He sat up, the cradle of his arms unfolding to keep one broad hand beneath the baby’s head, the other hand big enough to hold the rest of the child secure. “It’s long past time for her to meet her auntie.”
“I – er – um.” Taryn held her hands out in instinctive alarm, then crossed her arms tightly. “I don’t know how to hold babies. What if I drop it?”
“Her.” A laughing voice spoke from behind. “And of course you won’t drop her. You’re her aunt.” Mhysra appeared, taking her daughter from Stirla’s sturdy hold and pressing her against Taryn’s crossed arms. “Go on, she won’t bite.”
“Yet,” Stirla added in a wicked undertone. “Just wait until she’s teething.”
“Thank you, Uncle Stir-crazy, that’s enough from you,” Mhysra told him off without taking her eyes from Taryn’s tense face. “Milli’s asking for you. Lhysi’s lost Feather Bear and expects Dada to go rescue him. So off you go, Dada.”
Stirla gave a long-suffering sigh. “If I must, then I must. Toys deserve rescuing just as much as the rest of us, I suppose.” Despite his grumbling, he winked at Taryn again and invited Rhiddyl to play hero with him.
Dragon and captain headed inside, leaving Taryn facing her sister-by-marriage and the threat of holding a baby.
“Come, it’s not hard,” Mhysra coaxed, and Taryn glanced down.
The baby was looking at her, blue eyes huge and wondering. Taryn swallowed, her arms relaxing and before she knew it she was holding the baby.
“Oh, she’s heavier than she looks.” She smiled, somewhat self-consciously, worried she wasn’t doing it right.
“Just support her head, there, that’s it.” Despite having being a mother for less than a month, Mhysra was reassuringly confident as she positioned Taryn’s hands in the right places and urged her to relax. “She’s sturdier than she looks too.”
Taryn nodded and stared at this little piece of life that hadn’t even been breathing when she’d left Nimbys, uncertain what to do next. The baby yawned, smacked her lips and shut her eyes.
“Um… is she sleeping now? Do you need to put her to bed?” Faintly panicked, Taryn tensed up and the child opened her eyes again, screwing up her face unhappily.
Oh no, she was doing this all wrong. “Please don’t cry, please don’t cry,” she begged, bouncing on instinct and the baby shut her eyes again.
Taryn looked at Mhysra, eyes wide, hating how lost she felt.
Mhysra smiled. “You’re doing fine. Come sit down. Holding her takes some getting used to.”
They sat on the bench. Taryn didn’t drop the baby in the meantime. The baby didn’t wake. No disasters occurred. In fact, everything was peaceful. A wind whispered through the courtyard, ruffling the trees. A purple maple leaf detached and swirled to the ground with the others. The fountain chuckled.
Mhysra gently tugged the blanket more tightly across her daughter’s body, protecting her from any chill. “She’s fast asleep. Good job, Auntie Taryn.”
Taryn stared at her.
Taryn stared at the baby, unable to believe something so tiny could be alive. That she would someday grow to be the same size as they were. To live, laugh, love, even fly on miryhls one day. Gods. Birth wasn’t a miracle, it was terrifying.
“What’s her name?” her panic finally receded enough to ask.
“Starla. In honour of her godfather.”
“Starla,” Taryn whispered, cautiously bending down to brush her lips across the tiny warm forehead. “I’m honoured to meet you, little one. Welcome to the family, such as it is.”
“It’s not such a bad family,” Lyrai said, speaking from the shadows and making Taryn jump.
Starla woke up with a grizzle and started to fuss. Mhysra rescued the complaining baby before Taryn could get too upset herself, leaving her free to glare at her brother.
“There are better families out there,” she told him, feeling cross because she’d thought she was doing well, until Lyrai had spoiled everything. Again.
Her brother laughed and scooped his tiny daughter into his good arm. Mhysra helped to position Starla just right and kissed his cheek. Lyrai smiled at her and winked at Taryn.
“There may be better families out there, little sister, but this one is ours.”
“And every one of us is welcome,” Mhysra added, tucking her arm through Taryn’s and drawing her into the little house they’d made on the far side of the courtyard, where Stirla hunted stuffed animals and Earl Kilpapan brewed hot chocolate over the fire. It had to be one of the strangest families on the Overworld, but on evenings like this, as she watched little Starla snooze in her cradle, while Rhiddyl caught up on all the adventures she’d missed, Taryn was surprisingly glad it was hers.
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