Two pairs of eyes scrutinized Eslaveth as she set mugs in front of the couple at the table. She flashed a smile toward the man’s tilted head and dropped her eyes, pretending not to notice the woman fidget with her tasseled handbag. As she turned away, balancing the tray against her hip, the woman whispered, “Well, she looks like him.”
“Hush!” the man commanded. “We’ll talk about it later. Here is not the place.”
Eslaveth glanced back as she gathered the plates, but the man peered into his cider, swirling it around the mug. She backed against the kitchen door, swinging inside to unload the empty dishes as Karlyn nestled a slice of lamb next to the potatoes on fresh plates.
“Why are you frowning?” the boy asked.
Eslaveth dried her hands on her over skirt, reaching to move the plates onto the tray. “Someone said something funny, is all. I’m not sure what they meant.”
“Mama says we ought not to listen in,” Karlyn said. “She said it’s rude.”
A smile pulled at her lips as she leaned over. “It is rude, and you must take care not to do it.”
She whisked out before he could ask her why she did what she’d told him not to and strode back toward the couple. Their clothing was finely woven, so delicate they wouldn’t endure under practical work. The woman’s hair twisted into coils in the back of her head. She must have a handmaid. When man shifted his hands from the table to make room for her to slide the plate, she glimpsed the faint traces of ink on his largest finger.
“What is your name?” the woman asked.
Eslaveth folded the tray in front of her as she stepped back. “Eslaveth, my lady.”
Perhaps the title was wrong, but it was better to overestimate than to insult. Neither couple reacted to the term, so she must have guessed correctly.
The woman’s smile grew, crinkling fine lines around bright eyes. “And who is your father?”
Eslaveth hesistated, glancing toward the stairway for anyone who might call out to draw her away. It was empty, and she replied, “I am an orphan. I live with my uncle.”
The man shifted, straightening his right leg beneath the table. “Your father was my younger brother,” he said.
Eslaveth blinked. “I’m — I don’t believe my father had a brother.”
“Your father was Lord Loncrea,” the man said, “before he decided to give up his title and marry below his birthright.”
That part was true. Eslaveth blinked, ducking her chin. “He died when I was eight.
“I would like to speak to you,” the lord said, which was an odd thing since he already was, but then he added, “And your mother’s brother as well if he can be spared.”
Her mother’s brother hadn’t been terribly happy about his sister’s marriage, but Eslaveth glanced toward the few people scattered throughout the room. Her aunt leaned forward, eyes already bright with curiosity.
“If you want privacy, you’d best come into the kitchen,” Eslaveth answered.
Merra would hate guests in the kitchen, especially those of high-blood, but it was better to speak of titles and forbidden love away from the ears at the tables around them.
The man stood, placing his hands on the table and eying his wife. “Enjoy your breakfast here. I will return shortly.”
The woman’s boots scooted backward as she braced herself, as a child being told to sit still. “Well,” she said, disappointed and blushing. She dropped her eyes to her plate before pulling a square of material from her handbag. “I suppose you’re right. I do hate cold food.”
But her eyes followed them as Eslaveth led the man to the kitchen where they were greeted by the tear-inducing sting of chopped onions. Karlyn had disappeared, likely after the eggs. Merra must be bartering a decent price with the farmer who had the best potatoes but always overcharged. Eslaveth peeked from the backdoor as she opened it, spying Magar carrying water to the horse trough.
“Uncle!” She bellowed, waiting only until he straightened before she turned back to her other uncle. The man smiled, his shoulders relaxing even as he stood between the bubbling caldron of travelers broth and the bucket of scraps near the table.
“How old are you now, Eslaveth? Nineteen?”
“Eighteen summers,” she answered.
“But not married?” he asked.
“No. I’m not overly eager to marry,” she answered.
The man smiled though it held a tinge of sadness. “Very wise of you. Do you like working here?
“Yes.” A stack of dishes caught her eye, but she twisted her skirt, unused to stopping work to visit. “I like to talk to the people. I like being busy.”
“Do they pay you?” he asked.
She took a breath, wondering if he asked from ignorance or wounded pride. “No,” she answered. “This is my family’s home. If I have need of something, they provide it.”
“But lay nothing aside for your marriage?”
Ignorance, she decided. She’d heard enough gossip to realize that the wealthier girls of the land were often found beautiful or unattractive in direct correlation to the sums their fathers had stashed away for them.
Everything Magar was currently setting aside would be used to replace the worn floorboards around the doorway. She dropped her chin and lifted her eyes with a smile she hoped the man would accept as teasing. “It’s only teen leers to be married. I’m sure my uncle will supply that when the time comes.”
“That is a fee, not a dowry,” the man said.
Why was he pressing this? He’d just told her delaying marriage was a wise choice. Merra had bought her a few things or passed them down, so she compromised with, “I have a chest where I’ve collected some things.”
Her uncle shifted, as uncomfortable with this talk as she was, and she pressed forward, “May I be frank with you, my lord? If my uncle must pay a man to marry me, then I’d just as soon never marry.”
He lifted his head, staring at her a moment before he dropped his head back and laughed. “I like you. But a little money is very helpful in getting you to places where you can meet a man.”
She grinned outright, scraping the onion skins from the worktable. “Lecatto may be lacking in some things, sir, but men is not one of them.”
“Yes, but do you really want to marry a butcher?”
Eslaveth dropped the scraps into the broth. “No. I haven’t met anyone I’d like to marry.”
“Perhaps because you weren’t meant to marry in the lower class,” the man replied kindly. “But let’s not quarrel about it. I’ve been looking for you for years, and I’d rather not put a bad taste in your mouth right off. I don’t suppose your father ever spoke of me.”
Not once that she remembered, but he looked disappointed so she replied, “I’m not sure. I don’t remember them very clearly.”
“I understand,” he said. “My father died when I was young as well, only he left me with an estate to run and little time to grieve. But your father…” he swallowed. “We had a rather vicious argument when he married. I needed his support, and he relinquished all power to marry your mother. I told him he’d lose his title. I thought he would change his mind, but he left.” He brushed the edge of his sleeve. “I never actually struck his name from the records. I pleaded for him after his arrest–I still believe he was falsely accused–but the king would not grant his freedom or allow me to see him or know what became of his children.”
Eslaveth stilled, setting her hands on the table to steady herself. “Children?”
“Well, yes. You and your siblings,” her uncle said. “I found birth records for you, your sister and your two brothers.”
Perhaps they weren’t related after all. Eslaveth blinked. “I don’t have brothers or sisters.”
“Well, your sister died as an infant,” the man said. “A year before you were born. But you have a brother named Kavron who is two years older than you, and another named Sorrara who is firstborn. He would be around four years older than you. But I cannot find any other information about them, so I assumed they died in the fire when your house was burned. One of your neighbors claimed to know Kavron, but no one said anything about Sorrara. Another claimed you’d gone to live with your uncle but couldn’t recall his name.”
“Magar.” She supplied the information as the nameless uncle stepped through the back door. He stopped, spotting the lord in his kitchen, with enough confusion that Eslaveth thought the man must not have attended his brother’s wedding.
“Hello, Magar,” the lord explained quickly. “I am Lord Travarr.” When the inn-keeper continued to search, he hurried on. “My brother married your sister.”
“Oh,” Magar answered. He opened his mouth again, but seemed at a loss of how to speak to a brother-in-law two stations above his own.”
“Did you know I had siblings?” Eslaveth asked.
Magar set the sack of potatoes aside before he straightened. “I knew you had a brother.”
“I had two!” Eslaveth said. “And a sister.”
Magar held his hands toward, pushing back her excitement. “Your sister died as an infant from some sort of fever. I saw her only once.”
“What was her name?” Eslaveth asked.
“I don’t know that she had one. She was only a few days old.”
Disappointment tinged, but Eslaveth asked, “And my brothers?”
“You only had one brother,” Magar said.
“Two,” Lord Travarr corrected. “At least, there are two in the records.”
Magar frowned. “Kevron is the only boy I knew. If there was another boy, he died in the years following their marriage and neither parent mentioned him. Perhaps there was a mistake in the records.”
“Perhaps,” Travarr answered, though he frowned.
“And what of Kevron?” Eslaveth asked.
“He was shy and sickly. He went to live with one of your parent’s friends in a different part of the country. She had a reputation for healing and the air was less damp there. He lived there a year before your parents died, but I was unable to locate him afterward.”
A sibling. Eslaveth’s eyes roved the tabletop, trying to remember another boy. “Then he may still be alive.”
“Yes.” Magar agreed slowly. “But I have no idea who she was or where she lives, so it’s unlikely. She was a friend of your fathers, so it’s unlikely she will often cross paths in our circles.”
Lord Travarr had found her. Eslaveth clasped her hands to cover their shaking. “But he could come here!”
“We may locate him yet,” Lord Travarr said. “We found you. I came hoping to adopt you, but I see you are happy with a family already.”
Magar swallowed as Lord Travarr spoke, “You need not leave. But,” His eyes traveled from Eslaveth to Magar, “I have no children, and Eslaveth is the only one I have been able to locate. Of course, she cannot inherit without a husband, but if we cannot find Kevron, our lands will default to her as the only heir. She is still a lady, legally.” When Magar sputtered, he held up his hand, answering, “He was born a lord, and though he resigned the title, I never processed the records. When he died, he died an heir.”
Magar leaned against the table, whispering, “God have mercy.”
“Of course, she would not preside as a lady over the lands,” Travarr said quickly, “Unless she married into the upper ranks to a man who qualified as a lord. But the family’s estate will revert to her if there is no one else from her generation.”
“I wouldn’t know what to do with it,” Eslaveth sputtered.
“That is why you should take heed to whom you marry,” Travarr answered. “We would like to know you, of course. We’d like you to come visit or even spend the day with us.”
Her father’s brother. Eslaveth played with the chain around her neck which held her father’s ring–her only inheritance that survived the fire. She swallowed, glancing toward Magar for permission.
“Eslaveth is not a slave,” Magar replied slowly. “She may take a day off whenever she wishes.”
Eslaveth rushed to hug the man. “I’ll be back tonight,” she said.
She would return. He was her second father, and she wouldn’t leave him and Merra, even for a lord and an estate. But this man knew her father. He would remember the things she couldn’t. And there were things she needed to know.
Magar squeezed her, then smiled without mirth. “Better go change if you’re going to trot around town.”
She glanced back toward Lord Travarr, realizing even her best dress was going to look shabby next to his wife’s, but she hurried to change into a cranberry gown, smiling at her newly found aunt as she stepped back into the dining room.
The woman had finished her plate and half of her husband’s, but she rose as they approached, sighing as she smiled. “Then we have found her.”
Travarr’s eyes twinkled as he gave a nod. “Eslaveth, this is Lady Emel.”
“Darling!” The woman embraced Eslaveth, causing a few people to stare. “I knew that was you. Your coloring is all wrong, but your face looks like your father.”
Eslaveth’s heart lifted as she looked from one to the other. “Please, can you tell me about my father?”
The man nodded but flashed his eyes back toward the kitchen. “Let’s go to the carriage first. Then I will tell you anything you’d like to know.”
Danel stared a bit when he brought the horses around, but Magar must have explained because he said nothing. It still felt strange to accept his hand, to step into a covered wagon. When the carriage lurched forward, Lord Travarr launched into a tale of a young boy with days filled learning to ride and handle a sword and playing tricks on a strict and grumpy tutor.
Eslaveth alternated laughing and staring, trying to correlate this version of her father with the man she remembered dressing as a peasant, chopping wood, and showing her how to plant potatoes every spring. There were glimmers that resembled Travarr’s version; her father rode a horse at full speed with ease and confidence, settled disputes with humor that cut to the heart of the matter.
When the discussion turned toward his sudden announcement of marrying her mother and the chaos it had caused within the walls of the manor, she listened in silent wonder. Could love be so powerful? Or was there something else? Something that had to do with the reason that he shut her bedroom door some nights, when it was usually open, and the many strangers that showed up at her home, talking in low murmurs before slipping away?
“If you can be spared,” Lord Travarr broke into her thoughts, “Emel and I would like to take you to the Kloean Gathering at the castle. They have records one cannot access anywhere else, and we may find something of your brother if we are lucky enough for a chance to ask.”
“At the castle?” Eslaveth asked.
“Of course, darling!” Emel laughed. “Where else? We could have such fun! In the right sort of dress and jewelry, you would be stunning!”
Tehveor would be there.
Eslaveth stared at Travarr, sputtering, “I cannot walk into the king’s home!”
“You can if you’re with us,” Lord Travarr replied.
She’d have a chance to see places no one at the inn had ever stepped. She’d see the king firsthand, to know whether or not the gossip was true. She shuddered. “But they’ll know! They’ll see right away that I’m only a peasant girl.”
“But you’re not a peasant girl,” Magar said.
The idea of dancing and speaking to the royal family mingled with images of being found out and dragged down the hallway to be cast into the street. Even if she were born a lady, no one would believe it. “But I don’t know what to do or how to speak,” she said. “I could never give the pretense of nobility.”
“We’ll teach you,” her uncle encouraged.
Eslaveth wrung her hands tightly together. “What if something goes wrong and they find out?”
“Eslaveth, I don’t think you have yet realized who you are.” Lord Travarr leaned an arm on his leg as he leaned forward. “You are the daughter of a lord. You are a lady. You have every right to be at the castle. You’ll be accepted–as long as you don’t let on that you choose to work at an inn rather than being adopted.”
Well, one prince and one korvier would know she worked at an inn.
“I like the inn,” she said. “And even if I didn’t, I couldn’t leave my aunt and uncle after they’ve raised me.”
“We’re not asking you to leave,” Emel said. “It would three days at the most. Of course, we’d like to adopt you, but a little time isn’t too much to ask. It’s only fair you should meet your father’s family, and we could give you opportunities that you may never have again.”
“The inn may be well enough for now, but you are getting older,” Lord Travarr said. “If you plan on staying there, you are giving up a life of privilege, so that you can serve other people and cook and clean. Even if you marry, it will be someone of the lower class where you’ll run yourself down bearing children and running a household. Is that what you want?”
No, it wasn’t. She’d known that. All her life she wanted to be something different; to answer the longing that came into her heart at night and drew her toward something that was different from the others. But what? What was this feeling of being set apart? Was it because she did not really belong to either class of people? Or perhaps because she only wished her life to be special and could not fathom the idea of settling down to the dull existence that was her people’s lot?
“I don’t know what I want,” Eslaveth admitted
But now she was given the chance to be a lady. What would court life be like? Was that the life she had felt was missing? For once, Emel held her tongue while Eslaveth picked fluff from her woolen gown. Three days could regain her brother. Or perhaps fill this longing she had yet to fill.
She raised her chin. “I will go to court with you. But only if you promise to bring me home again.”
Her uncle smiled. “It is done.”
Eslaveth glanced thoughtfully out of the window, noticing a blonde girl in a passing carriage and wondering if she would ever be able to live a life such as that girl must have.
“I can’t see it anymore,” Silvah said. She shifted in the seat, releasing an impatient breath. “Are we nearly there?”
“You must exercise patience, my dear,” Lord Aindrui teased. “The castle’s not going anywhere.”
“I’ve tried over and over to imagine Tehveor older, and I just can’t,” Silvah replied.
Her father chuckled. “He’ll be the only one with silver eyes. I’m sure you’ll recognize him.”
“I scarcely remember those either,” Silvah said. “I never thought much about them. Do you think he received my letter, or will I be a complete surprise?”
Aindrui laughed. “We’ll find out.”
Silvah wrung her fingers together. Tehveor mentioned his cousins in his stories sometimes, but he was vague about castle life. It was his home, yet she still swallowed fear about escorting her father into the castle. She watched the lightening flash across the sky, disappointed they should arrive on such a dreary day. Yet the weather meant Tehveor was more likely to be inside.
Would he want to see her?
Most of his letters were warm and sometimes even funny. Other times, they were a vague collection of trivial bits. And the last letter he’d sent was one of a more sombre tone. She carried it now, returning to it again and again, not because of its contents, but because the uneven lines that formed ragged letters, contrasted an overly cheerful tone. Every time she’d read it, she was left with the impression of the tale of a peasant father who cradled his child, telling her story after story as he watched the last of winter’s coals glow in their hearth. Perhaps it was only the change of the letters; shaky, uneven loops she would expect from her grandfather’s trembling hand. Perhaps it was because he never answered her inquiry.
Are you well?
The castle was bleaker than she expected. She watched the thick wall pass by the window as they rolled into the courtyard. After so many days of travel, now that she was here, she wasn’t sure she wanted to be. The servants worked efficiently, contrasting her usual arrivals. There were no cheery greetings as the carriage stopped. The man who offered a hand to steady her descent kept his eyes on the far wall.
The servants at the door bowed before opening the hallway doors. Silvah stepped closer to her father, but he spoke in quiet tones to another servant, who disappeared, returning within minutes to grant Lord Aindrui with an audience with the king. Relieved she was not required to accompany him, Silvah moved toward the wall to wait until he returned.
A servant girl glanced at her dress with the slightest smile, but when Silvah returned it, the girl blushed and asked for pardon before hurrying away. Feeling self-conscience, arriving days before any other guest, she busied herself studying the carved panels on the wall until one of them moved.
She gasped, stepping away as the gold slid to the side, revealing a young man stepping from the gap. Raindrops dripped from his dark hair. His hand covered most of his face as he wiped his face, then turned from her.
“Tehveor?” she asked.
He paused before turning to face her. His clothing was too nice to be a servant, but he didn’t look royal. His vest hung from his hands, swaying as it dripped onto the floor.
She blushed and dropped a curtsy when his eyes met hers — not silver, but a light brown color that would be warm if they didn’t resemble a startled deer.
“Forgive me,” she stuttered. “I thought…” She trailed off before she blundered even more.
“No, not at all,” the man said. He glanced around, then down at the white shirt, which clung to a large portion of his chest. “I–uh– I’m sorry. I don’t believe we’ve met.”
“My name is Silvah Lesonna.” Silvah kept her eyes fixed on a vase of red and white roses that stood in the hallway. “My father is in audience with the king.”
She didn’t recognize the voice behind her, but someone had recognized her. She turned, smiling as she spied the silver eyes that lit as they met hers, evaporating any fear she’d had of meeting Tehveor again.
“You’re here!” He laughed as he took both of her hands, only then looking behind. He cocked his head at the boy who shared his coloring. “And you’re wet.”
“My horse went lame,” the boy explained. “If Father is looking for me, you didn’t see anything.” He turned back to Silvah with a hint of sparkle in his eyes. “Neither did you.”
“I’d rather look at her anyway,” Tehveor teased.
The other boy laughed and darted into the stairwell as a servant rounded the corner. When his footsteps faded, Silvah winced sheepishly at Tehveor. “Please tell me that wasn’t the high prince.”
Tehveor laughed, spreading his arms. “Well, he’s human too. When it rains, he gets wet like the rest of us.”
“Oh,” Silvah moaned, covering her face with her hands. “I thought he was you! I addressed him all wrong.”
Tehveor laughed. “He’s very forgiving.” He peered around her. “Is Martyn here? Your letter only said, ‘we.'”
“No. Only Father and I. Martyn is with Mother. Father was coming early, and I begged to ride along because I wanted to…”
She trailed off before she finished the sentence.
“I’m glad you did.” Tehveor tugged her toward the end of the hall. “Come with me. I promised Mother I’d bring you as soon as you arrived. She’s eager to meet you. Apparently, she’s been plotting with your mother for you to come.”
A few servants peered as they passed, but Tehveor didn’t drop her hand and it almost felt like when they were children and he’d guided her through the streets at the fairs or through the woods behind their estate. The bronzed walls turned into stone, covered with portraits and tapestries, but the closer they traveled to the private quarters, the plainer their surroundings grew. By the time a servant opened a door leading into a long hall of bed chambers and sitting rooms, the castle looked more like her own home than the housing of the royal family.
As they passed a doorway, a voice cried, “Wait!”
A chair scooted and another boy stepped into the doorway, curiosity mingling with confusion. He pointed first at Tehveor, then her, asking, “Who is this?”
“Silvah Lesonna,” Tehveor answered. “Silvah, this is Prince Darshon.”
Darshon didn’t look anything like she’d imagined. He grinned, appearing a little nicer than she had guessed. “So you’re the letter-writer,” he said.
She dipped toward him, then spread her hands. “The one and only.”
“Tehveor, is she here?” A woman’s voice called from another room.
Silvah laughed as Tehveor tugged her away from the grinning boy who looked very close to teasing. Setta met her with open arms and from behind, Darshon began to hum a song about a lad who once met a lass.