In the grand scheme of things, the Ivelliar household did not like surprises. Party invitations less than three days in advance were ignored, surprise guests were allowed one night of shelter before being shown the door, and all individuals, lord or servant, were expected to adhere to their schedules without fail. So long as things continued ran smoothly, food was plenty, beds were warm and salaries were always on time; the Ivelliar family had a long and proud history of punctuality, known by its Queen to be honorable and by its servants to be generous.
As such, it came as a massive surprise to everyone when the Duchess Lilly Ivelliar slipped into early labor––not least to the Duchess herself. The Duchess had been content to laze about in late pregnancy with her courtly duties put on hold and her every desire close at hand, ideally for another month and a half; she had no events, no paperwork, nothing at all to do except read books in the garden and listen to her handmaids sing.
When her entire abdomen seized on a midsummer morning, Lilly Ivelliar threw down her book with a grimace of annoyance.
“Fetch the doctor!” she demanded of her closest handmaid. “The baby is coming.”
“Now?” the maid asked, gaping in disbelief.
“Yes, now! It’s not a melon in here, girl––go!”
The terrified handmaid sprinted off like a rabbit under hunt, and the Duchess waddled toward the great towering mansion that lay in the heart of Western Velham. Her labor started quickly and powerfully, crashing down in waves until she could barely stand. Her two remaining handmaids took an arm each and lifted her into the house, where the first handmaid had returned with a middle aged, dark-haired doctor by the name of Asaphen.
“Did you imagine it?” he asked, as if labor pains were akin to an insect bite. “It’s almost two months early!”
“I did not!” she hissed through clenched teeth. “Something’s wrong; it wasn’t––it wasn’t this hard with Vance.”
The doctor gaped at her for a few moments. He had only ever attended births where his presence had been unnecessary, and the idea that something might be wrong left him speechless.
“Don’t just stand there!” the Duchess shouted. “Do something!”
“I––I have laudanum!” Asaphen exclaimed, diving into his bag.
“What? That won’t help! Make it stop going wrong!”
Asaphen stared at her in terrified silence.
“Oh, for the love of the Princes, get him out of here! And get me someone who actually knows what they’re doing!”
The first handmaid shuffled the doctor awkwardly out of the hall, assisted by a young kitchen boy who leaned over to whisper, “Wait, the baby’s not coming now, is it?”
The handmaid nodded gravely. The kitchen boy excused himself, doing his utter best not to look like a spy, and ran to a back room to find paper and privacy to write down this valuable information and send it off without being seen.
The doctor’s replacement arrived just as the Duchess made it to her bed. She was a midwife, a massive woman with bronze skin and shoulders broad across as a mountain. She was wrapped in a network of pouches that rustled as she walked, and sheer authority radiating from every movement.
“Stop your struggling,” she commanded.
The Duchess obeyed, gawking in shocked disbelief. The midwife sat on the bed and stretched her hands over the woman’s swollen womb, massaging the skin with a thoughtful frown.
“This your first?” asked the midwife.
“No, it’s—ah!––not my first. Vance wasn’t this––wasn’t this hard.”
The midwife hummed, moving her fingers to the Duchess’ sides.
“Is something wrong?” the patient cried desperately. “It’s too early!”
“No, that ain’t it,” the midwife murmured soothingly. “It’ll be a hard day, for sure, but everything’s lined up right inside you. They’re just a pair of little troublemakers, that’s all.”
For a moment, there was dead silence.
“What do you mean, they?”
The midwife tilted her head quizzically. “You don’t know? You’re having twins, woman.”
“What?” With a snarl, the Lady whipped around to her handmaids. “How did Asaphen not know this?”
The midwife chuckled. “Maybe wait until you get those little ones outside of you to start asking questions.”
“I can’t have twins! I’m an Ivelliar! It’s too dangerous!”
“Don’t tell me, tell those two little tykes kicking their way out of your belly. You, red-hair girl! Draw this one a bath––warm and big, and keep some hot water on the side to keep it that way!”
The red-haired handmaid scurried off to make it so, and the midwife helped the beleaguered Duchess to her feet. “Easy does it, that’s right, take your time.”
“Can’t have twins, too dangerous,” the Duchess muttered over and over.
At that exact moment, Duke Eddin Ivelliar, patriarch of the Ivelliar family, lord of all western Velham and most decorated infantry commander on the island, burst gracefully through the doors of the bedroom. He was tall, lean and yellow-haired, immaculately dressed in fine red velvet, and was the very picture of well-bred terror.
“My love!” he proclaimed. “What is wrong? Is the baby coming already?”
“You!” she roared at him. “You did this to me, you bastard!”
He halted. “What did I do?”
“Out of my way!” She stomped past him. “I’m taking a bath, and I’m doing it now!”
The midwife got between them and shot an apologetic look at Eddin. “Perhaps leave her be, it’ll be best for everyone. There's not much you can do to help her.”
Although he didn’t at all like being excluded, Duke Eddin had even less of an appetite for being flayed. He let his wife do as she pleased.
Within an hour, the news had already swept through the house and beyond. All throughout the Velham West, good citizens shifted about in their work without knowing the reason why; the lowest beggar and highest noble each felt a sudden unnamed anticipation, until the news reached them and gave it form: the Duchess Ivelliar has gone into labor, and she’s having twins!
In the next moment, whispers replied, Twins? With beastblood? Bad luck, that is.
And in a high wing of the Ivelliar manor, little Vance Ivelliar listened to the great roars drifting from the bathroom and looked up to his nanny in worry.
“Was I born like that?”
“Don’t you worry yourself, little master,” his nanny replied with a reassuring pat. “Your mother’s a tough woman. She’ll be fine. Her next ones are just excited to meet us all.”
Just outside the Ivelliar estate, clustered behind a stable, two not-at-all-suspicious-looking men frowned at the letter they had been given by the Ivelliar kitchen boy.
“Twins?” asked the man with yellow hair and a scar over his cheek. “They’re not keeping them both, are they?”
“Aye, can’t imagine the Duchess letting one go just like that. Soft as a lapdog, she is.”
“Hmm. Well, at least we know they’ll have their hands full for awhile. Beastblood twins. Bad luck, those are.”
The twins were born two days before midsummer’s eve. They slid into the red water, one after the other, and Duchess Lilly Ivelliar immediately reared up and threw back her head in a fearsome snarl. Teeth lengthened, bones groaned, muscle and sinew began to twist and swell with magic––her first order of business before all else was to stop being a woman and turn into a massive bear. She was grand and sleek, with with snow-white fur stained red by the bits of her womb floating in the water. Not one moment after her transformation, the bathtub shattered under the weight and spilled all across the room.
The attending servants let out shrieks of dismay and ran for their mops, but stopped in their tracks at the white bear’s offended roar.
When all was still and quiet, the bear bent down to lick the two infants squirming between her paws. One of them found their voice and began to cry, and the other realized it also had lungs and followed suit. Without hesitation, the bear scooped them to her belly to nurse.
“Ach, bad luck, don’t start them on bear’s milk,” the midwife grumbled. “They’ll grow up wild.”
The bear paid no heed, wrapping around her children like a blanket while the servants tiptoed around in a vain attempt to clean up. The babies grew contentedly silent.
The entire mansion breathed a sigh of relief, and assumed the trouble was now over.