It was hard being an eight-year-old girl away from home for the first time.
Well, that wasn't strictly accurate – Erdess had been at Court in the Torr before, but now she was in a different country. Before she was taken away, her mother had told her the Gernum in Mithannus were family, and that they would protect her. But they didn't look anything like her mother, and they certainly didn't act like Lady a Neifel. Erdess thought her mother was the smartest, most beautiful woman in the world. Erdess' mother would hug her just because, and tell her tales of how the Goldenwyrd forest, from which her House made syrup, came to be.
But she had spoken with Lord om Gernum few enough times to count on her fingers, and she was not yet very good at counting. Most of the time, he looked at her like she saw the stable master look at horses. Lady om Gernum had been nicer at first, and tried to do ladylike things with Erdess. There had been flute-playing and embroidery. She liked the flute, but her audience made faces when she played, and never asked again. The embroidery she did not like, because she kept pricking her fingers, and in the quiet that reigned during this activity, she would ask what had happened to her mother. She didn't know a lot of the Mithann words the Lady used, but she could tell she was being lied to.
The adults, having evidently forgotten her, left Erdess to wander the halls of the Forkhold. Today, she sat in the courtyard, watching a steady stream of merchants, lesser nobles, and wealthy peasants come to meet with Lord om Gernum or his steward. She was munching on a sweetmeat pie when a figure approached. She squashed a spark of fear. Stepfather is dead.
"Hello," said the man with a strange and kind smile.
"Mmf," she greeted in kind, and swallowed.
"My name is Aalor. What's yours?"
"Erdess," she said quietly, eyeing him up and down. "Are you from Shunnoir?" It sounded like a Shunnois name. His clothing was poor but clean, probably a merchant's servant. She shouldn't be talking to him.
Aalor chuckled. "I am. A pleasure to meet you, Erdess. You're a foreigner too, right?"
She nodded. "I'm just visiting. I think." She got the feeling this adult wanted something.
He raised an eyebrow at that. "You think?"
Erdess twisted a wrist noncommittally. "I won't know until I hear from my mother."
He seemed to lose interest in that line of thought. "How long have you been here?"
"I don't know," she said. "Weeks."
He made a show of casually looking around, as if to see what might be interesting.
"Are you usually alone? What do you do all day when the Lord has an audience?"
"I walk," she said. "Sometimes I play with my brother. He's not very fun."
"Lord Gernum doesn't attend to you?"
Erdess twisted her wrist again. "No, he goes to his study. I tried to go in once, but he said he was busy."
"Couldn't bother to watch you through a window?"
"It faces the forest, he can't see me," she said. His eyes never met hers for long. Lady om Gernum did that.
"You want something."
He looked sharply at her, and she watched his face change. He tried a smile.
"Now why would you think that?"
"I don't know," she admitted, and she found herself rubbing a spot above her eye. The man followed the movement, looking curious.
"Where's your mother?" he asked, his tone completely different from the casual one he used with his earlier questions.
"At'Luann," she said, glad someone wanted to talk about it. "My stepfather, he died, and knights took her away. Gernum are my mother's people. Took me and my brother to live here while—my mother talks to the king, I guess."
The man's gaze remained on her forehead after her hand fell away.
"Be well, Erdess," the strange and kind man said at last, and gave a small bow. He strode away, and Erdess finished her pie.
Her brother was having a nightmare. He was tossing and turning and crying out in half-formed words. That was how he always spoke, ever since he fell down the stairs and hit his head.
Erdess got up from her bed and padded over to her brother's, and pet his head. She remembered their father doing this, so long ago. He had been killed by Shunnois infighting during one of their many civil wars. Sent by the king, because Torr always took a side when Shunnois Houses went to war.
With the petting and a little humming on Erdess' part, her brother eventually stilled, and his crying became only murmuring. The girl didn't feel like returning to bed right away, put on slippers and a robe, and set off wandering the halls.
Most children were afraid of the dark, but not Erdess. Most children didn't have stepfathers.
The dark keep was peaceful. It was late enough that no one was still awake, though it wasn't much different from the daytime, because no one paid her attention then, either. Not that she minded. She became nervous when lots of people were looking at her. It made the scar on her head hurt.
Erdess' nightvision faded as she spied a faint light down the hall. This was the northern side of the keep, the one facing the forest. Tip-toeing closer, Erdess saw that the light was coming from Lord om Gernum's study. He was never up this late.
There was a man dressed in black cloth rummaging around the desk and bookshelves. Erdess was fascinated by his movements, instead of screaming, as she should have. His searching seemed frantic for its speed, but he hardly made a sound. Every movement flowed into the next as if carefully orchestrated.
His back to her, the man did not see the girl spying on him. She watched him for a good three minutes, seeing him pocket the occasional paper. A metallic clink told her he'd found some coin. She shivered in a draft, and suddenly, the man froze.
Erdess clapped a hand over her mouth, as if that would save her. Slowly, the man turned, and in the faint light of the single lit candle, she aw a shadowed face she almost thought familiar.
"What are you doing?" she whispered, because it seemed the thing to do.
He seemed to ponder this question carefully before responding.
"Checking for rats. You're dreaming. Go and dream in your bed."
"You're stealing from Gernum," she said.
"Then go and quietly tell on me," the man replied, carefully stashing away the pouch of coin he'd found.
"Does he deserve it?" she asked. The man paused even longer this time, as if taken aback by the question. She thought she saw him smile.
"Does it matter?"
Erdess tentatively nodded. "Mother said that doing something wrong to someone who deserved it wasn't wrong."
The man chuckled softly. "If he didn't deserve it, I wouldn't be here. What do I deserve, little sparrow?"
She had to think about that a moment, since she didn't know much about the man.
"Well," she started, "you're a horrible thief."
Another chuckle. "Maybe I didn't count on children guarding the secrets I was after. But I have what I came for."
He blew out his candle and moved towards the window, which Erdess just realized was slightly ajar. He put one foot on the sill, then turned to look at her. In the light of the Fox's moon, she saw Aalor.
"Be well, little sparrow."
Aalor dove out of sight, but somehow Erdess knew it wouldn't kill him.
It was only the next day, when guards were scurrying around, terrified of their lord's anger, that she learned who the Butterfly was.