I could tell from the moment I saw General Weinand Eskorn – it was dislike at first sight.
Having finished eating, he leaned back in his chair. Smiling contentedly, he closed his eyes, showing just how much he was enjoying himself.
”I don remember the last time I enjoyed a meal this much. Simple and delicious. Id say life in the countryside definitely has its perks. ”
I was hardly able to keep myself from pouring the entire soup tureen on his head. The only thing stopping me was the fact that our cook Fenna spent the entire morning making this ”simple countryside food ”. She cooked as if today was the Enchantment holiday.
”You say you were a close friend of my fathers? ” I asked, eyeing the tureen and trying to assess whether its contents had cooled down.
Entertaining the guest by keeping the conversation going is basic etiquette. Even if he shows up uninvited, falling on my head like a rusted bell from a church tower.
”He was my mentor. I served under him. It is thanks to Count Noero that I became who I am today, ” Eskorn flattered my late father. ”And now Im going to do the same for Reefer. ”
My brother perked up and flashed a bright smile. He, unlike me, was glad to see the general. He had no idea where he was going to send him. He had no idea what kind of palce awaited him.
There were many rumors about Calderock, the best military academy in the empire. Remembering them made my chest tighten. My hands turned cold as I recalled the stories of young officers being tortured until their bodies and minds were completely broken. Until they became shells of what they used to be, drained. Most of them never finished their studies, returning home humiliated.
Sometimes they even ran away, bringing shame on their entire family. And if Reefer failed…
”With all due respect, Sheir Eskorn, your visit is rather unexpected. Along with your proposal to my brother. ”
”Is it? ” he chuckled, referring to my calm, quiet life.
”Up until now, we weren aware of your existence, so you can imagine… ”
A timid cough came from the far end of the table.
Looking sideways at my aunt, I noticed a guilty smile on her lips.
”Tessa? ” I frowned.
”Your parents wished for Sheir Eskorn to take you under his wing. They left a letter… ”
”A letter? ”
”Their last will, ” aunt sighed heavily. ”They wanted Reefer to follow in his fathers footsteps and study at Calderock. ”
”But he… ” I bit my tongue, feeling the weight of two reproachful glances pressing on me.
Actually, only Tessa stared at me reproachfully. Reef observed me with resentment.
”He what? ” Weinand asked. Even in the dim candlelight, I could see how his features had sharpened, giving his face frightening rapacity.
Despite the fact that summer was in full swing, today was cloudy and chilly. With thunderclouds brooding over the estate, the twilight thickened more and more with every minute, just like my mood darkened with every word that escaped Eskorns mouth.
Quite the suitable weather for todays meeting.
”I thought that my brother would always reman by my side, ” I answered, withstanding the gaze of Eskorns cold gray eyes. ”You know how it is with twins. ”
He nodded and smiled unexpectedly.
”I know and understand that perfectly. Worry not, Laira. ”
”Shiari Noero, ” I corrected him, squinting.
I didn call him Weyne.
”Shiari Noero, ” he said ironically. ”I want you to join him in the capital. In a while, at least. ”
”Shortly after Reefer. Or rather, Sheir Noero, ” he corrected himself with a grin.
”Just call me Reef. ” A carefree smile appeared on my brothers face.
He generally liked to smile. The same couldn be said for myself as a frown slowly twisted my lips while my fear grew.
I was afraid for my brother.
A minute later, I realized that I should also be worried about myself. Meanwhile, Eskorn continued.
”Sometime by mid-October. Just in time to get you ready for the debutante ball. ”
Caught off-guard in the middle of sipping my wine, I choked and started coughing.
”Im sorry, what? ” I croaked, pressing a napkin to my lips.
”The debutante ball, ” Eskorn repeated, now openly mocking me.
”Why? What would be the point of that? ” I asked, regaining my composure like nothing had happened. My voice was seeping with poison mixed with notes of fury. ”Im twenty-two. Its too late for me to participate in such… activities. ”
As the general shook his head, I realized how the tureen and it were a match made in heaven.
”Its never too late to get married, Shiari, and to find happiness. For my part, I promise to do everything in my power so that by the end of this year you find your place in life and your fated man. ”
My thoughts wandered off to our orchard. We have some apple trees in our backyard that are in desperate need of fertilizing. Yes, Im sure General Eskorn will make excellent fertilizer…
I suppose I let my bloodthirst show since Tessa hastened to intervene.
”We are very grateful for your concern, Sheir Eskorn, but maybe we should postpone the marriage issue? ” she chirped, smiling so sweetly that I almost shed a tear.
I hate to have her turned into fertilizer as well, but it has to be done. As soon as this nightmarish dinner is over.
”The children are being bombarded with so many changes at once… ” Aunt continued to murmur. ”Perhaps we should focus on Reefer for now? ”
”I gave my word, ” Eskorn protested. ”And I intend to keep it. I promised to take care of both of field marshals heirs. Besides, Shiari Noero is right, shes already twenty-two. Theres no time to waste. ”
Using my own words against me? I may be old, but Im not that old.
”I already found my place in life. ”
”Here? ” Eskorn asked, throwing disdainful glances around.
I mean, the house is old, but I love every moldy corner of it, and all of its cracks and patches.
”Imagine that, Im happy in my village. ”
Weinand dabbed at his lips with a napkin and leaned back in his chair once again.
”This is not up for discussion, Shiari Noero. You are the heiress of a noble family and you should, first of all, think about its glory and continuation. ”
Instead, I kept thinking about fertilizers.
”You can make me. ”
”Do you dare to go against your parents will? ” Weinand raised his eyebrows, knowing full well that I would never do such a thing.
”I would like to read this letter. ” I cast a demanding glance at my aunt, having gotten enough of the generals suddenly extremely punchable face.
”Not now, ” Reefer snapped and at the same time gave me such a glare that I had to swallow all further objections. ”Sheir Eskorn, tell us more about the academy. Am I definitely suited for it? What if Im not a good candidate? ”
”You are. All Noeros who studied at Calderock were its best graduates, and you, Reefer, will continue this glorious family tradition. I have no doubts. ”
We didn raise the topic of marriage anymore. The men talked only about the academy, and my aunt also took part in the conversation, with an odd glimmer of interest in her eyes. And I… I felt a noose tighten around my neck. This morning everything was fine. It was just another regular day. And then he appeared.
He had no idea… Nobody but Tessa knew that I couldn connect my fate with any man. No man would agree to an exclusively platonic relationship. And there was nothing more I could offer.
Otherwise, I would lose both myself and my power.
And that, General Eskorn, is something that will happen only over my cold, dead body.
After dessert – a delicious apple pie, which Fenna served with warm vanilla cream – Eskorn finally remembered his manners and announced that it was time for him to return to the city.
”Would you like to stay the night here? ” My aunt asked, her voice full of concern. ”The weather keeps getting worse, and the road to the capital is far. ”
”Thank you kindly, Sheila Gloucester, but I don wish to be an inconvenience. ”
Too late, Sheir. You have already inconvenienced us.
”Oh, nonsense! You
e not an inconvenience! We have many guest rooms. Ill send for the maid and… ”
”Tessa, don pressure the Sheir, ” I gently rebuked my aunt. ”Maybe he has important matters he needs to attend to in the city. ”
I didn know why, but Tessa was obviously fond of him. All evening she blushed, then turned pale, then shyly fiddled with the lace of her cuff. Did she like him that much? But he was younger than her… How old was he anyway? I glanced at him. Thirty-three? Thirty-four?
Perhaps even older, but he took good care of himself…
With the best smile I could muster, I turned to the arbiter of my and Reefs fate.
”Ill show you out, Sheir. ”
My brother snorted and rolled his eyes. He wanted to say something, but Eskorn was faster.
”Thank you, Shiari Noero. I really appreciate your concern. ”
”Unfortunately, I can say the same. ”
Lightning flashed across the sky, followed by the crash of thunder. I led Eskorn out into the fresh, rain-soaked air, under the condemning looks of my loved ones.
”I hope you don get soaked. ”
”Something tells me you
e hoping for a completely different outcome. ”
Having descended from the porch, we turned onto the path that led to the stables.
”My, for a man, you are quite perceptive. ”
”And you are too capricious for a woman, ” he reproached me. ”That might make things harder for us. ”
”Things like finding me a husband? ”
Not like I intended to help you with that.
Eskorn stopped, so I had to slow down.
”To give you the future you deserve, Laira, ” he said ingratiatingly, looking me straight in the eye.
Despite the deceptively soft note in the werewolfs voice, his words sounded like an ultimatum. A verdict that couldn be subjected to appeal.
”I would like to choose and build my own future, thank you very much. ”
”You are too young and foolish for that. ” He sighed.
I wish I had that soup tureen…
”So, am I too young or too old? Choose one. ” I crossed my arms, looking at him defiantly.
”I think marriage will do you good, ” he came to conclusions that were incomprehensible to me.
”Oh, do you now? ” I drawled.
”It will smooth out the sharp corners of your personality. ”
”At least I have one. ”
Eskorn shrugged. ”Thats not something Id be proud of if I were you, Shiari. ”
”Don you need to hurry home? ”
The rain intensified, threatening to turn from a fine drizzle into a real downpour. Seeing no point in continuing this conversation, I hurried Eskorn.
”Lets go. Id rather not have this dress ruined. ”
We moved on, guided by the flickering light from the kerosene lamp in my hands.
”I recognize your father in you, Laira. You are very much like him. Although at first, I was convinced that you were just like your mother. You have her delicate features and the same charming smile. ”
Is he sucking up now? Smoothing out the sharp corners of my personality?
”Thank you for the compliments. ”
”Im just stating the obvious. ”
Here I had to agree. I really did look very much like my mother: fiery red hair, honey-brown eyes, fair skin, and aristocratically delicate features. When I were a child, my father often called me Flame, both for my appearance and for my lively disposition. My brother still called me that sometimes, even though he knew I didn like it. I wasn fond of memories of a happy past, times lost never to return again.
As Eskorn rightly pointed out, my resemblance to my mother was only superficial. In everything else, I was a spitting image of my father. And even my gift – something that I had no right to possess – I got it from the Noero clan. Reefer…
My chest tightened once again as I remembered what awaited him.
”Why now? ”
”Why what? ”
We entered the stable, and I was the first to approach the stall with Eskorns horse.
”Father has been gone for two years, and you just now remembered your oath. ”
”I returned to Ergandar only a month ago, ” Weinand replied, checking the girth of his saddle. ”The war prevented me from showing up here sooner. ”
I shuddered and pulled up the scarf thrown over my shoulders. The damned war for the Kreim Isles took my father from me. And even though Eskorn and his comrades returned home victorious, most will never see their homeland again.
Too many people had suffered for someone elses greed and other peoples ambitions.
I didn want Reefer to become cannon fodder in the arena of political games.
”Listen… ” I hesitated, collecting my thoughts, and then said ardently: ”Reefer has no place in Calderock. You may think otherwise, seeing him as Noeros heir, but Sheir, you know nothing about him! ”
”Reefer is a man, and you are behaving like he isn even able to tie his shoes and wipe his nose, ” Eskorn said, no longer hiding his irritation.
”Reefer is my brother! ”
”Thats right, your brother. Not a son, not a little boy who needs to be protected. Your concern, Laira, does not benefit him. ”
Blinded by anger, I gnashed my teeth. ”Oh, you know everything, don you! ” I took a deep breath, forcing myself to calm down. ”His gift is unstable. ”
”Thats not a problem. They will teach Reefer how to control his power at the Academy. ”
”Laira. ” He took a step towards me, making my hand prickle.
I had never slapped anyone. But now it darkened before my eyes from such a strong desire to rearrange Eskorns handsome face.
”If I don take him, someone else will. You know how much all-rounder mages are important to the empire. If he manages to develop his hidden gift… Believe me, your brother has a great future. ”
Only he had no hidden gift. I inherited every drop of it.
I wisely kept silent about this, as well as the fact that I regularly paid off the recruiters who came to Crower to keep Reefer from appearing on the lists of draftees.
”What if he fails? ” I wasn going to give up. ”He will bring shame on the family. I don want him to carry this burden for the rest of his life. ”
For the Ergandarians, family honor was above all. Almost all mages of the empire become warriors. Even enchanters and life-creators undergo combat training, not to mention universal mages. No one was spared or pitied. Those who failed were no longer considered men, and their entire families would find themselves on the emperors bad side.
”Are you saying that your brother is weak? ” The corner of Eskorns lips twitched.
”Im saying that he doesn need this. ”
”You are trying to live two lives at once, Laira. But you have your own life, and I will make sure it is a good one. ”
He just won give up.
”And Ill take care of Reefer. In the near future, ” the general grimaced, as if pain shot through his side, ”I will be forced… I will teach at Calderock. I will look after him and help him out if necessary. And then you will move to the capital and be able to visit him every weekend. ”
What a great plan.
Outside, the heavens and earth became one. Thunder strikes shook the ground beneath our feet like an earthquake. Violet streaks tore the clouds asunder while the wind whistled, its cold fangs making me shiver.
”Perhaps I should have accepted your aunts invitation, ” Eskorn muttered, glancing up at the window. Raindrops were rolling down the glass, hitting it like a drum.
I pretended not to hear him and stepped aside.
”May the spirits be with you on your way back. Don catch a cold. ”
With one swift movement, Weinand jumped into his saddle.
”I sympathize in advance with the poor fellow you will marry. ”
”And once you leave me alone, this world will be richer for one more happy man. ”
The general briefly smiled. Perhaps it was just the reflection of the flame playing tricks on me and creating the illusion of a smile that was never there.
”See you in the capital, Shiari Noero. Tell Reefer that it was a pleasure to meet him. ”
”Are you saying meeting me wasn as pleasant? Actually, don answer. Im sure we feel the same way about each other. ”
I got the impression that Eskorn was one of those men who are used to having the last say. But this time he decided to give in. He probably gave up because he was in a hurry to get home.
Spurring his horse, the general rushed off into the stormy night, occasionally turned into light of day by flashes of lightning. For a long time, I stood at the open gate, not paying attention to the cold drops dripping down my face. I stared at the rider gradually turning into a dot on the horizon. How drastically our life had changed in just a few hours…
If luck was on our side, Reefer would endure his studies at Ergandars most monstrous academy. But the question of my marriage remained unanswered. I knew one thing for sure: I would never give up my strength and my freedom.
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