The morning light glittered off the crystal carafe as Vithian poured Othorion the sweet mint tea. Ulesse had set a lovely table for the family’s breakfast in the garden. Bowls overflowed with apricots and cherries. Raspberries, blackberries, and strawberries were layered with thick cream next to diamond-cut mangos. The scent of roasted hare and cold ham mingled with the hyacinth, peony, and primrose scattered around them. There was a salad of dandelion greens, spring onions, and kale and roasted asparagus, artichokes, fiddlehads, and fennel. The air was cool in their mother’s garden, which bloomed gloriously.
It was a spread that neither Vithian nor Othorion were used to anymore. Postulants often didn’t eat breakfast, and sailors had hardtack or gruel and, if they’re fortunate, salted beef, and a lemon or lime just to fend off scurvy. Returning home was a treat for the two.
“I think Ulesse missed us,” Othorion said, helping himself to another serving of berries and cream.
“This is the work of Firma, I’m certain,” Vithian replied. “I think he’s happy to have so many to cook for again.”
Othorion chuckled. “If he needs more to do, he’s welcome on the Aurora.”
“I don’t know if we even have a cook at the sequester.”
Vithian sat back in his chair, sipping his tea as he looked over the garden. It had been their mother’s favorite place in Heliohart, and Vithian couldn’t blame her. It was so cleverly planted that it bloomed throughout the year, filled with soft touches and sweet scents and bright colors. There were many places to hide, to be alone, and each of the siblings had their favorite spot. Vithian’s was under a shade maple, its red-leafed boughs nearly touching the mossy ground beneath it. Vithian could cuddle beneath it amongst the ferns for hours, just to be alone. Vithian smirked to himself – he didn’t hide away often. He preferred to be around people.
“How did you enjoy last night?” Vithian asked Othorion.
“Oh, very well. It was a lovely ball, wasn’t it?”
“Hmm,” Vithian said, watching his brother. “It was an interesting one, anyway. You had a favorite, I think.”
A blush colored Othorion’s cheeks briefly, and he shook his head. “No, I assure you. I very much enjoyed all my dance partners last night.”
“Partners? Othorion, did you dance with anyone other than Yuven Vetsian?”
“Of course, I did!”
The brothers kept each other’s gaze for a few heartbeats before Othorion broke into a grin and shook his head. “I suppose I favored Merioleth, didn’t I?”
“Jaonos and I were wondering if the date had been set for your wedding.”
Othorion threw his napkin at Vithian, and the two laughed.
“You two are awfully loud first thing in the morning,” Jaonos said as he and Ynaselle joined their brothers. Jaonos wore an irritable expression and slumped down in the chair to Vithian’s left. Vithian could guess he was hungover, which Vithian found impressive since alcohol was only served after a nearly half hour toast given by members of both the Heliohart and Passerine families to the newly affianced.
Ynaselle, on the other hand, was pale. Her eyes were red and puffy, and Vithian could see faint lines at the corners of her eyes and mouth. She offered him a weak smile, though, as she took a seat across from Jaonos.
“We were just celebrating Othorion’s new engagement,” Vithian said as he poured tea for Jaonos and Ynaselle.
“Hmm, well, she is a pretty girl,” Jaonos said into his cup.
“I like her,” Ynaselle said. “I’m determined to make her a friend of mine. I’m going to have her and all the Tarnyns over to dinner.”
“Oh, lovely,” Jaonos said, and Vithian wasn’t certain whether that was sarcasm or not.
“I shouldn’t mind knowing them all better,” Othorion said.
“Well, most of them,” Vithian added for him and the two exchanged glances. Vithian knew that Othorion wasn’t going to say that.
Ynaselle sighed, her hands hovering over the bowl of berries and cream. “I don’t understand Nithnael. I don’t remember her being so… so cold when we were children.”
“You don’t?” Othorion asked.
“Was she like that in Treserra?”
Othorion took a deep breath and sat back in his chair. His gaze moved upward toward the canopy of leaves above them as he thought. Finally, he shrugged his shoulders. “She thought very highly of herself, still does, from what I can tell. She was always pretty and intelligent, but she struck me as being… resentful.”
“At her own position in life. Yna, she was so cruel to you. Don’t you remember? Remember when we were learning ink painting? She kept trying to correct everything you did until you gave it up altogether. She never gave you a compliment – she just kept trying to insult you. Oh, she was polite about it, but she resented you were a Lord’s child and she wasn’t.”
Ynaselle frowned to herself. She tucked a lock of dark hair behind her pointed ear, still staring down at her own plate. “I suppose so,” she finally admitted.
“A social climber,” Jaonos said and shrugged. “In the position to do it, I suppose.”
“But, Alennia is such a lovely girl,” Ynaselle said. “She’s terribly shy. She shouldn’t have any friends at all if her family didn’t drag her out into society.”
“Invite them all over,” Vithian said. “It should still be a pleasant evening, anyway.”
Jaonos chuckled to himself, then placed his glass back on the table, put his head in his hands, and laughed out loud. Vithian, Othorion, and Ynaselle all glanced at each other, trying to think of the joke.
“What’s so funny, Jaonos?” Vithian asked.
“I was just thinking,” Jaonos said, waving his hand in front of his face, “how funny it would be should Othorion actually marry Yuven Vetisan.”
“Jaonos!” Ynaselle gasped.
“Oh, I don’t mean that!” Jaonos replied. “It’d be quite the scandal, though. Who are the Vetsians, after all? Poor farmers, Lady Erro tells me. When Master Tarnyn married, there was uproar that he should marry someone so far below him. And should our dear little Othorion, so dutiful and conscientious, marry her sister! A Blackwell! Marry a poor farmer!” Jaonos laughed again. “The thought of Othorion as part of such a scandal, any scandal!”
Othorion’s face had grown a deep red as Jaonos spoke. Ynaselle squeezed his hand, but Othorion pulled his hand away.
“I don’t think father would approve of the connection,” Vithian admitted.
“Father? Lady Erro would have a fit!” Jaonos replied. “She’s been wanting to marry us all off since we were children, and if Othorion, of all of us, were to sabotage her plans by marrying a poor farmer! Thory, you must! For me, you must marry that girl!”
Ynaselle reached over the table to slap Jaonos’s hand. “That’s enough, Jaonos.”
“Oh, I shouldn’t approve of the connection, either,” Othorion said, the floridity draining from his face as he regained his composure, but he didn’t meet anyone’s gaze. “I’m still just a lieutenant, and I haven’t even known her for a day.”
“Well, for myself, I think she’s charming,” Vithian said. He leaned his chin against his hand and watched Ynaselle. “You’re peaky this morning, Yna. And you left very early last evening. Are you well?”
“I’m well,” Ynaselle said, but Vithian noticed that how very interested she was in arranging her greens on her plate. “Father was tired last night and wanted to come home after greeting Prince Heliohart.”
“Hmm,” Jaonos said. They all knew that Ynaselle had wanted to avoid the younger Lieranym Bryravyn, but even Jaonos wouldn’t tease her about it. “He did seem tired last night. Actually,” Jaonos sat up and glanced up to their father’s bedroom window, “it’s not like him to still be in bed this late. Do you suppose he’s all right?”
Vithian stood immediately. “I’ll check on him.”
The door slid shut behind Vithian with a whisper, shutting out the birdsong that had made the garden feel so lively and cheerful. Inside, the air was oppressive. Vithian touched the lamp at the base of the stairs to brighten the passageway, but it only sent eerie shadows scattering across the flower like rats fleeing from rising water. The house was silent, unmoving, as if it had been filled with a deadening miasma. Vithian was suddenly reminded of an old elven superstition: an elf who dies without wind or light on their face would be trapped in the body forever so that all that remained was an angry spirit once the body rotted away.
Vithian shook his head, trying to shake the sudden fear that gripped him. Still, as he placed his hand on the bannister, he hesitated.
Their mother’s death had been sudden and unexpected. Perhaps it would have been better for their father had it not been so, but the shock had rocked the family to its core. The previous winter had been an anxious one, as their father fell ill. More than once, they feared they would lose him as well.
“Damn you, Vithian,” he said to himself. He forced his leaden legs and heavy feet to climb the stairs.
The upper floor was even more silent than the floor below, if that were possible. He could hear the maid Ulesse moving in her room on the third floor, but he heard nothing from the family’s bedrooms.
The floor creaked as Vithian stepped toward Flinar’s bedroom door. As a child, Vithian had thought his parents had made the floor creak so that they would know if any of their children attempted to sneak out of their rooms. Vithian pressed his ear to the door, but he heard nothing.
“He wouldn’t let me bring him breakfast.”
Vithian jumped and whirled about to see Ulesse leaning over the railing from the stairs leading up to the third floor. He took a deep breath. “Thank you, Ulesse.”
“He wouldn’t even let me open the door. Is everything all right?”
“I’m certain everything’s fine. Go about your work.”
Ulesse didn’t move from where she stood, though, so Vithian turned away from her and knocked on the door. He waited, but there was no answer.
“He’s not answering,” Ulesse whispered from the stairs.
Vithian knocked again. “Father, we’re all down for breakfast, won’t you join us?”
Once more there was silence from the room.
“Shall I get the key?” Ulesse asked.
“Enough, Ulesse.” He was growing more nervous. In all his life, he never remembered his father sleeping in.
He cleared his throat and knocked again. “Father, I’m coming in.” He tried the handle to find it was unlocked. Vithian hesitated, his heart leaping up to his throat.
Swallowing, he pushed the door open. He was surprised to see the room was bright and clean, as if completely untouched. Vithian stepped into the room, frowning to himself.
If the study was the darkest room of the house, the main bedroom was the brightest. It was almost completely white, save for the many flowering plants their mother had grown in the large windows. The large bed was built with a light icewood and veiled in white lace. It was made, as if it had never been slept in.
Confused, Vithian stepped further into the room. “Father?” he called. Vithian knew that Flinar Blackwell would never make his own bed. Had he even been in his bed at all? “Where in the world did you go?”
Ulesse gasped from the doorway, and Vithian jumped. “What?” Vithian snapped.
Ulesse pointed, and Vithian turned. The bed wasn’t made. It was completely unmade. The bedclothes had been pulled off entirely. Vithian stepped in further. He could see his father’s foot just visible from behind the bed.
Vithian felt the world spin, but ran to his father’s side, who was laying on the floor beside his bed, still tangled in his bedclothes. His father’s face was gray and pale. Vithian knelt beside Flinar and touched his hand, then drew back shaking his head. His flesh was cool and clammy.
“Is he dead?” Ulesse asked from the doorway. She was already crying.
As a postulant, Vithian knew that he would be called to preside over the dead. He would see no end of corpses. He would be asked to say final rites, to hold hands, to ease the process of death. And he would say funerary prayers. He wouldn’t let his father go without the rites he was due. Vithian leaned closer, placing Flinar’s hands on his chest. He leaned in to kiss his father’s forehead, but leapt back, nearly falling over himself.
He felt his father’s breath. Flinar was still alive.
“Ulesse!” he snapped. “Fetch Dr. Prognes!” Vithian pulled the blankets from Flinar’s legs and lifted them, hoping to improve the blood flow. Still, the clamminess of his skin unnerved Vithian.
Ulesse was still sobbing.
“Ulesse, now!” Vithian shouted. “Get Dr. Prognes, or he may yet die!”
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