Lynn Suzanne Wiffen

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Special thanks go to Debbie-Chan for being insane enough to edit this story for me.

Chapter One

I was six years old when we moved to Ashenberry house. I was more interested in getting the best bedroom than wondering why I was there in the first place. Not one moment passed when I didn't think myself fortunate for the loss of one house and the gain of one that was far superior to anything I had ever known.

Our new home was a large manor house, almost three times larger than our previous cottage and painted a shimmered white that looked lilac in the evening's twilight. It sat on a rise of land overlooking the edge of a great lake. There were ruins shrouded in age at the other side of the water. These, I have since learned, were originally part of a monastery belonging to the highest order; my attention was drawn there because, as the old car drew towards the gates, Mister Harrison thumped on the horn so loudly that a flock of white enetreols flew in a 'V' shape from the crumbling towers. I also saw the red drelani that sprung out from two great urns either side of our new doorway. They clambered – with seemingly little purchase – through, round, and up the enormous marble columns, which supported the main entrance.

"Look!" I remember saying to my mother, pulling on her crisp, cotton summer dress and gaining her undivided attention. "Our new house knows my favourite flowers!"

She rescinded her pride to crouch down at my level, her pale hand gently placed on my shoulder and her thumb moving over the smocking of my dress. "Or maybe it's just a coincidence," she said. "After all, houses don't think, do they?"

Her hazel eyes twinkled in the late evening sunshine. Then she rose, smoothing out her clothes before addressing the host of serving boys and girls who lined the entrance in a greeting to their new employer.

That was the way my mother was. She was a pragmatic woman, sensible and right in her duties, and strong in her goals, but she never quite knew how to transfer these qualities into her private life. Imagination didn't hold any sway with her, and she would never pander to my childish beliefs as other parents did. There was no softening behind closed doors. My mother, dearest, always had an edge, always had the words to dampen my enthusiasm, and never thought twice about using them.

I didn't let it bother me. Even then I knew she was wrong. Houses might not think as you and I do, but they definitely remember – they are the keepers of secrets centuries old and our new house, I quickly found, was as seasoned as the most compelling novel. I could understand as much just by laying my hands on the painted stones for the first time. They were cold and clammy to the touch, but through the years and the families that once inhabited them, I cold feel their true warmth.

I think my mother might have guessed something of my talents; after all, a young child never can hold her thoughts for long. In my youth and exuberance, I am sure I must have blurted things out that were hard for my mother to hear (indeed, they would be hard for most people to understand), but if she did know she never said a word. Besides, as soon as I was old enough to know to keep quiet, I did, only indulging myself into acknowledging and exploring the phenomenon when I knew there was no chance of being watched. I had no defence back then. I was open to these visions twenty-four hours a day, and not one day passed where I didn't see something that no one else could - not one day passed where I didn't feel bad for not being able to share it with anyone.

Not that there were many people around me to share it with.

My father wasn't home very often when I was little and my brother was kept away because of his studies. I wasn't allowed to socialise with the servants. There was an incident with a girl of similar age to me. She was the charge of our housekeeper and we had been playing together for several hours in the grounds by the river, exploring the vast banks and looking for sterch – a breed of small fish that likes feeding on algae in the shallow waters – when I tripped and fell into the water. In an attempt to rescue me, this young girl pulled me to the shore by my hair. This, apparently, was an affront my mother could not ignore, and she promptly blamed the girl for likewise trying to push me in. Never once did she entertain the idea that Mari had actually saved my life. So we were separated, but in my own way I managed to thank Mari and tell her how much I enjoyed her friendship – in my own way. It was a method I regularly explored and cultured because, without this talent I would have spent the majority of those years with no other company than my mother, my maid, and my governess.

I think I would have liked to see my father more, but his position, as the Emperor's head counsel, required his constant services in the capitol - a fact that my mother habitually complained over. She hated the lengths of time they kept "her Trocian" away from her. She called them "a strange set of men" who deterred him from his more natural advancements. She said his time in the militia made him think with the head of a soldier and she was sure at times the Emperor took advantage of his training.

It was a strange and estranged marriage they had, and I remember once asking Miss Marchant –the housekeeper– if she thought my father loved my mother. To which she replied, "As the sun loves the moon --- They both depend on the other, but each has to be apart to shine at their brightest." Melancholy words, but at the time they comforted me. I didn't understand their true meaning, but I never felt the sun's warm rays on me without imaging them to be my father's caresses.

For two seemingly indifferent parents, they at least had one interest in common --- my brother and I. Nothing we wanted was ever denied. We were a wealthy and noble family. While my brother studied in a school close to my father in the Capitol, until age eleven, my schooling was conducted at home. I had my own governess for the general day-to-day tasks of improvement, and where her expertise ran out I was given the privilege of travelling masters. I learnt to draw, read and speak four different languages, play the piano, and dance. I also learned the etiquette and grace that was my due to learn as a wealthy and noble heiress, yet I didn't take to fashion and refinement with the same aplomb as I did the other subjects. All I loved was learning and playing. So long as I had mental and physical stimulation I was happy. I had no respect or thankfulness for the life of a gentlewoman. It never occurred to me to be thankful; after all, my life was all I had ever known. Funny how it's only when you lose something that you realize its true value.

I still look back on this innocent time of existence with a smile and a painful heart. I was so naïve, so completely pampered. I had no idea what was going on in the outside world and never understood the true reason for my family's comfort. In a way, I'm glad I didn't though. At least I have one time to look back on with glad eyes; one part of my existence that fit, one time that I was loved, however vainly, and was looked on as something more than just a tool to be used.

It was on my eleventh birthday – the first day that the whole family had been together in over a year – things started to change. Ochre was home from school, and with the Emperor's court closed for a few days in honour of a public holiday, my father was also allowed to join us.

I opened my presents in a rush of paper that morning, and the whole family spent the day exploring our acres of land. Our walk took us the whole distance around the great lake and with the summer sunshine, tempered by a refreshing and cool breeze, we made comfortable and good time. The last turn took us tiptoeing through the roots of an ancient woodland, and as the valley parted to the sighing boughs, it brought us to a picnic at the old monastery.

I did not like stepping into the walls which, during our time, had been shored up. And even though new paths had been laid to ensure the monastery ruins could be viewed for generations to come, I didn't feel safe there. That day, as we picnicked within the walls, I saw many things and envisioned worse, but I had viewed them many times before. Merely busying myself enough so as not to let the images through seemed to work and it likewise stopped suspicion being aroused in my family and the servants around me. Bad things had once happened there, unspeakable atrocities that no child should have to witness, and even though I was fast becoming immune to them, they still managed to unsettle me. Through sleep, even safe in our house with its old familial warmth and friendly residents, I could still not completely ignore the chill of that place and its numerous dark inhabitants.

The butler, however, had taken a party of servants ahead of us to set up large hampers in what was once the main chapel. The fact there was life among the walls made the prospect of spending time there less formidable. Besides, it was such a bright and sunny day that it almost veiled everything else, making all the really bad images vanish--until night when they would once again carry on at their strongest.

Everyone was in high spirits. Ochre had his faithful pet at his side, a creature with more hair than brains and too playful to be useful for field sport. He was happy exploring the old walls, running and chasing after his friend through the maze, and I noted with a smile that I was not the only one to feel the darkness of that place. The young dog – Shampha was his name – was also aware of the past that still clung to the walls. His muzzle followed the same direction my eyes did, and he refused to go into one part of the monastery altogether. I'd never had free license to roam that place on my own, and just then I was very thankful for it.

As the sun beat down and lunch was served, my mother was entertaining herself with a newspaper, lost in the political realm that her fancy thought hers. My father was bathing in his chair, enjoying the heat of the day as he puffed on a cigar.

I, on the other hand, was buzzing around the servants, hoping for the chance to play hostess, but probably getting in their way as I diligently made sure everyone had enough to fill their plates. I liked the occupation. I never adapted well to being waited on and much preferred getting my own hands dirty rather than anyone else's.

I had two hampers to call my domain, one for the fresh food and drinks and the other overflowing with cutlery and serving plates, which I felt detracted from the idea of a picnic.

"Emmy?" my father called, as I was sectioning the cold ham. He dramatically wiped the sweat from his forehead and flicked it away. "Is there a cold drink in there for me?"

"We have lots to drink, Father. What would you like?"

"In this heat?" He laughed, a wonderful and rich sound. "Only water will do, my dear, anything else is sure to make it worse."

On tiptoes and balancing on the side, I found a bottle at the bottom of the cooler, colder than all the rest and perfect for the father I never saw, but idolized irrevocably. It is strange to say this about my own father, but I never knew quite how to behave around him. I didn't see him enough to have any idea of what was proper or natural. Rather than trying to untangle the mystery as an older child might, I instead contented myself with making him as comfortable as possible. If my father were happy, I reasoned, then he would be happy with me as well.

To be honest I think I could have done anything back then, and he would not have looked on me any differently. Paternal love was there, no question about that, but he never saw me as a child. He treated me as a miniature adult and I appreciated the deference. So I took him his water, gave a small curtsey, and then fussed around with the parasol, trying to give him some shade, even though it was twice my size.

"Emmy?" he asked again.

"Yes father?"

He racked a hand over his short dark hair. "Leave the parasol alone and come and sit with me. I need to speak with you."

I did as he asked, tentatively at first and then with a little more speed as he beckoned. He caught me out of my stride; his bright green eyes looked me up once and then down.

"You know," he said, somewhat distantly. "I think you have grown since I last saw you." He led with his hand and placed me in front of him. "I always knew as such, but I think you will turn out to be an extremely pretty young lady. Perhaps not beautiful, but striking in a way that will garner lots of attention, both worthy and unworthy."

"She is a quick learner as well, Trocian," my mother added, having laid her newspaper down. "She has quite worn out Miss Leigh already and the young lady has not been resident here more than three years. Looks help, but a good mind - that is where the matter rests. She will do well. She will find an intelligent, honest, and wealthy man when the time comes. Mark my words."

"And do you likewise think this is all that should be expected of her? To make a good wife?"

My mother paused for a moment, weighing up the right words. "I think," she said somewhat stiffly, "that our daughter will do what is right for the family."

He smiled lightly at this, but it didn't seem to denote happiness. "So do I, but I fear it may have to be in a way that neither of us would wish for."

"How do you mean?"

"Emmy?" he said, his voice softened and his eyes kindly. "Who is your best friend in the world?"

I sighed, suddenly feeling very uncomfortable at being the topic of conversation--a fact that wasn't made any easier by the storming brow of my mother, who didn't look as if she liked being ignored. "I was friends with Miss Marchant's charge, Mari, for a while."

"Only a while?"

I nodded. "Mother said that I wasn't allowed to see her again, because a lady and her servants shouldn't socialize."

He looked across at his wife, a slight frown on his lips. "Well, I don't think it does any harm, but I'm sure your mother knows best. Emmy? How would you like to make lots of new friends, friends that even your mother could not object to?"

I smiled, truly excited at the prospect. I'd never been around children my own age, and the thought of having a companion who I could tell all my secrets too without fear of reprisal was a welcome one. "I'd like it a lot."

"Then," he said, pushing up from his chair and standing. "I propose that we help Miss Leigh find a new post and that you, Emmy, should try attending school instead."

School. I don't know what I thought of the word at that time. School was a word I associated with Ochre and the time he spent away from us. He seemed happy with it, however, and, unable to say anything contrary to my father's wishes, I found myself agreeing to the proposition.

My mother was less inclined. "School?" she blurted out, standing and meeting my father's confident gait. "Surely not. We only need a more competent and learned governess. Besides, what is she to study for? Ochre starts the final year of law school in a few months and no doubt he will be recommended for a seat on the backbenches after a few years in practice. The De Laney family will continue in the same line as our distinguished forefathers, so there really is nothing else that should interest us."

He shook his head. "Nothing else you have interest in, Felcia, but my position demands another interest, one – no matter how much I wish it were otherwise – I cannot shirk." My father's back went rigid and his hands squeezed tightly. "Times are changing, my dear. The world is changing and we have to move with it or risk being left behind. Our son already has his profession, this I cannot change, but the new law must be observed. I am no longer an officer. I am a politician. To keep our house where it is we need a representative. We have no choice. She is the only living relative of the right age and with no preordained occupation."

"But our position, our seat on the counsel, surely you of all people should be able…!"

"No," he interrupted. "It is because of my position that this has to be done. For the new law to be a success then I have to be seen to be enforcing it in all families, especially my own. I have no choice. If we don't do this then I will lose my seat. All this!" he gestured around us. "All this will be gone. And not only that, the new law, the economic stability, and the safety of our people will be put at risk."

My mother's usually sharp and proud features had gone through no little amount of emotion, but when called on to speak she squared her shoulders and shook the feelings off as though they did not exist. "When and where?" she asked.

"She will start as soon as the holidays are over, but her placement... well… at least in that I have some influence." My father crouched down and smiled, addressing the next part to me. "You will attend St. Mary's in Robei. It is a private school, where you will learn a great deal about how to be strong, both physically and mentally." Here he glanced at my mother and then slowly back to me. "St. Mary's is run under the guardianship of Emperor Shaek himself, and should you study hard and apply yourself as I have every reason to hope you will, then you will graduate to the palace and become a member of the Emperor's Elite Guard."

"The Elites?" My mother's voice carried to us, and even though it did not make my father look away, it caused him to smile. "A palace job?" she continued. "But that is a very respectable position indeed, certainly better than some obscure and unnoticed regiment. Why, there are not many men in the land that are so distinguished. But Trocian, are you sure she will be accepted? The female policy is only just abandoned, and palace places are few and far between."

"Don't worry," he smiled. "So long as I have influence then Emmy will be kept well away from the frontline. Besides, I should hope that your prediction is correct and that she will be married and starting a family of her own, long before she is given any placement."

"And will she be trained in Fayora?"

"Yes, she will be trained to fight, but with a little luck, she may never need to use her skills."

"Oh but I think it will do very nicely."

"You do?" he asked somewhat confused.

"Of course," she smiled. "Now I know Emmy will be safe, and have the prospect of both a good education and career at the end - should she wish for it, I am perfectly easy."

He studied her quizzically, rightfully not taking her sudden turn in favour at face value. "What are you scheming Felcia?"

She turned away but I looked on, eager to understand what was going on, but more grateful for just being a witness. My parents were interacting, having a rational and intuitive conversation, with serious undertones and yet they were working together, gelling as a couple in a way I had never had much chance to see.

A smile was on her lips. "Oh, nothing you need to worry your head about."

"No," he asked, raising an eyebrow. "This wouldn't have anything to do with a certain Lord in his father's military? The one who is also studying in the art of Fayora?"

She didn't even try to dodge the accusation. "Don't tell me you haven't thought the same? He is only four years older than Emmy and now they are attending the same school…"

"As are fifteen hundred other students, with parents just as eager to make a good connection. Wishing doesn't make it happen."

My mother smiled, a knowing glint in her eye. "And how many of them are female? We will see, what we will see," she said, and even though it was said casually I am certain that from this starting point she moved in ways and contrivances unseen, tireless and yet subtle, to promote the union as much as she possibly could.

The conversation seemed to end there. The picnic was served and I was left contemplating the prospect of school and learning to fight. This was totally new territory for me, but not wholly unwelcome. I was going to be given the opportunity to learn at a faster pace, to sample some time in the Capitol near both Ochre and my father. I would be away from the confinements and refinements of home, in a place that was large and learned and therefore, I presumed, less judging. It was a little scary, I'll admit that bit, but the excitement far surpassed it - a new phase of my life, a new start, and with prospects unparalleled.