Three figures waited for us in the opulently furnished grand hall, the last hurdle before the grand doors of the Varr mansion and the world beyond. Baen stayed a few paces behind me, looking over my left shoulder, looming like a welcome pressure at my back.
The first of the three was a man, old and stooped now, with a weathered face and wisps of white hair that had once been a proud mane. Farrert had been chamberlain to the Varrs since before my father’s time, and though I’d never asked I suspected the man to be in his eighties by now. It was a wonder he was still alive, much less still walking around and barking orders to the lesser servants. He’d been a decent sort, competent and hard working, but he was a creature of my father’s, and that made peace between us impossible. In addition, I knew how unnerved he was by my eyes, or more specifically my vision. He would use every excuse to look at something innocuous or even close his eyes when I was nearby. Now, for example, he stared at his feet as I approached, studying his dark shoes. Coward.
The second figure had no such qualms. She stared angrily straight at me, glaring at the blindfold, her arms crossed. Akemi Varr was short, having inherited none of my father’s height and much of what I remembered about my mother’s features. Short hair, black as mine, hung straight down around her pale face, framing her dark, almond-shaped eyes. My little sister now wore a hard frown on her face, and I half expected her to stamp her little foot in a show of petulant rage. Still more a girl than a woman, the sixteen-year-old hadn’t quite shed the appearance of a child yet, and her behaviour had followed suit.
The third and last person standing at the entrance was as different from Akemi as she could be. Tall, with skin the colour of dark, rich chocolate, Cymea of Akron – or Cymea of Varr as she was now known – had been the envy of every girl and the desire of every boy since we had been children. Black hair cascaded around her perfect face, over her shoulders, complimenting a body that somehow danced between voluptuous and athletic. Her eyes, a strangely vibrant green, stared despondently down at my feet.
“So you’re just leaving?” Akemi said as I drew closer. “Whoop, you’re all set to go and just leave me here?”
“Close enough,” I answered, and Baen snickered. “You’ve got your studies to complete.”
“Then leave me in charge!” she snapped. “I’m old enough to run things!”
“Not without taking time out of your studies,” I said, shaking my head. “Cymea will act as my steward, Farrert will assist her. You will focus on your studies.”
“Cymea has her own life!” Akemi almost shouted, pointing at the dark-skinned woman. “You’re bullying her into this!”
“It’s alright, Akemi.” Cymea’s voice was soft, and she spoke while smoothing down her mourning robe, all black and demure that somehow only seemed to accentuate her beauty. “Kae- Lady Varr thinks this is best.” She caught herself, and I gritted my teeth a little at the slip.
“To the Mists with what ‘Lady Varr’ wants, you’ve got your own things to do, I’m old enough to manage the estate and Kaede’s just being a bi-”
“Miss Akemi!” Farrert’s voice was like old parchment being unrolled, but still it cracked like a whip. Like me, Akemi had heard that tone all too often, and its impact had not lessened with the years. At least on her.
“…not a nice person,” Akemi finished lamely, but her expression didn’t change. I kept my expression carefully blank. “You’re just taking this out on her becau-”
“That’s enough,” I said, cutting Akemi off for a second time. “I have made my decision, and you will abide by it. Cymea will act as my steward until I say otherwise, and that is final.” I moved closer to Akemi, looming over her. “Is that clear?”
She glared at me for a long time, angry, and while it was difficult for me to see from Baen’s angle, I thought I saw her expression soften somewhat. “Fine,” she said through tight lips. “Perfectly clear.”
“Good.” I stepped back, turning to Farrert. “Make sure she does as she’s told.”
“As you wish, Lady Varr.” He gave a slight bow, still looking at the floor.
“If you’re about done with your family drama, we’re already running late,” Baen said, seizing on the brief pause in the conversation. The fact that she’d waited for a pause at all had been uncharacteristically considerate of her. Farrert gave her a provisioning glower, and Akemi opened her mouth to speak before thinking better of it and holding her tongue.
“I’ll write,” I promised, taking Akemi’s cheeks in my hands and kissing her forehead. She stiffened, then gave a small sniff. “Be good, alright?”
“I’ll be fine,” she snapped a little too quickly, and I see tell her vision was getting foggy with tears. “Just go already.” She looked away, a useless gesture with me but understandable. “I’ll be fine.”
Stepping back, I gave Cymea a short, curt nod before brushing past her and Farrert and out the doors.
Queensdale was beautiful this time of year. The Season of the Scion was here in full force, with damp-laden gusts sweeping across the fields, tickling without chilling the farmers that worked to prepare their lands for the advent of winter. I had always liked autumn, the light rains and the crisp winds as everything alive braced itself for the coming cold. All of nature held its breath before the plunge, and it was the anticipation that thrilled me, the wonderful moment before something happened.
Baen and I travelled through this beautiful landscape quickly, mostly in silence, with the majority of her words saved for the fern hound that followed her practically everywhere. I had been surprised that the strange creature – seemingly halfway between a plant and a dog – had not come with her to my bedchamber. She’d named it Grapple, which I was certain was some kind of joke, though I’d never understood the humour of it and I certainly wasn’t going to ask her to explain it to me.
“Do you think you can keep that animal in line this time?” I asked, the silence of travel starting to boring me. We were beyond my family’s estate now, cutting across country as we followed the river north-east. The Clayent Falls roared behind us, and from across the water I could smell the smoke rising from Claypool’s mighty forge.
“Do you think you can go for a day without antagonising her?” There was a hint of laughter in Baen’s voice, and I snorted.
Grapple was one of those animals that I suspected played the fool and was in fact a lot smarter than it acted. It knew that I wasn’t particularly fond of her, and so had determined that she would do everything she could to appear friendly to me. As a result, in our little “disputes” I inevitably looked like the villain. If Baen understood what kind of manipulative mind lay in the leafy head, she’d given me no sign of it, and when the hound had gotten me into all manner of trouble as a novice she’d done nothing to help me out of it.
Again, I wondered why I considered her a friend.
“Just keep it out of my bag and I’ll be the very spirit of geniality,” I told her, adjusting my bag on my shoulder. “If she destroys anything, I swear I’ll turn her into compost.”
“She doesn’t mean it, girl,” Baen said, looking down at the hound, which yipped playfully with a sound that sounded a little too much like laughter. “Ol’ Kaede’s just gotten even more stuck up now that she’s all head of the family.” I stiffened. “Makes her think she’s all important now.”
“Or maybe I just have responsibilities neither you nor your beast could understand.”
“Oh yes, very responsible how you’re leaving Cymea in charge of everything while you run about.”
I gritted my teeth, trying to push the rising anger away. She was trying to rile me up, and I wasn’t about to give her the satisfaction.
“I’ll still be making all the major decisions via mail,” I said, half surprised at how calm my words sounded. “I’ve made the arrangements. Besides, I trust Cymea with something like this – she is more than capable.” She gave a snort at that, and I felt the anger rush back in. “You don’t know her like I do. I’d be careful who you judge in my company.”
“That’s not what I found funny.”
“The hypocrisy of the nobility?” she ventured, her voice still light. “You didn’t leave Cymea in charge because you trust her, in fact I’m pretty sure you don’t. You left her in charge to keep her in line, to keep her under control. Maybe even to punish her.”
“What I do with my vassals is my business, Baen.”
“’Vassal’?” The humour had vanished from Baen’s voice. “A few years ago she was your friend, remember?”
“The term isn’t mutually exclusive,” I snapped, realising my control on my temper was slipping and no longer caring. “And not everyone deserves the title of ‘friend’.”
“Do I?” The question took me by complete surprise, and I stopped dead in my tracks as she turned to look directly at me.
“Baen, I-” My words were cut off by her raucous laughter. I snarled and pushed past her, my cheeks burning with rage as I marched angrily down the road.
“Oh, Kaede,” Baen managed through her laughter, wiping the tears from her eyes as she caught up to me and lay an arm around my shoulders. “I’d say you should have seen the look on your face but the great thing with you is that I know you did!”