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
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