It was already past eight o’clock. I was supposed to be on time, but listening to Nomi nagging me about the destroyed closet held me up. Obviously, I didn’t tell her about Pikachu. I just told her that I was practicing fire magic when it happened -somehow. But then, she nagged even more about not using magic in the room.
I was hurrying to the refectory, hoping that Vivian hadn’t left yet. Fortunately, it was pretty close to my room. I just had to go downstairs and cross a couple of corridors. It took me less then five minutes to reach it.
The refectory was a grand room, to say the least. Huge carved tables of oak with raw barks at the edge dominated the space, left without a tablecloth. The floor beneath it all was slate and the walls were covered with a damask patterned ivory paper. On the center of each table, a chandelier hung down the ceiling on a wrought iron chain, providing the proper ambiance lighting for a fine evening meal.
The hall was a discord of loud chatter. With people raising their voice to be heard above the din, it was in no shortage of ambiance.
I looked around the busy tables, searching for a familiar face, when someone snuck up on me.
“Boo!” A high-pitched voice rang in my ears.
I turned around almost immediately.
“Did I startle you?” Vivian asked with a beaming face.
“You sure did!” I exclaimed.
The young girl chuckled proudly.
“Sorry for being late,” I said. “My roommate held me up. You didn’t wait for too long, did you? “
She shook her head. “Nope! At least, you gave me time to think about what I’d be taking tonight!” She joked. “Although I have to admit, I was starting to wonder whether you stood me up or not.”
“Sorry…” I apologized once more.
We made our way to the buffet tables. The food seemed washed-out and overcooked, but at least it was plentiful. The options weren’t limited. There was a cold buffet for the starters, a warm buffet for the main course, and a third buffet for the desserts. Vivian filled her plate with a large serving of lean meat and lentils. I wasn’t feeling particularly hungry, so I just took some salad.
We sat at the end of the nearest table. Vivian immediately dug into her meal as she began to eat heartily.
I didn’t share her opinion. I had been accustomed my whole life to high-quality food, cooked and prepared by master chefs, so this kind of meal didn’t impress me. It wasn’t particularly bad, but it did lack flavor to my taste. In a way, it kind of reminded of my hospital days. The mushed vegetables, the chewy meat… That same-old gray taste, served on a gray plate… Nevermind, it was kind of bad. I’m glad I didn’t take a large serving. Looking at Vivian’s enthusiasm, I was seriously starting to wonder if the food we were eating came from the same kitchen. I suppose for a commoner of this world, this is a small taste of luxury -or maybe it’s just my salad that’s bland. Despite this, I was in a particularly good mood. It was the first time I was eating with a friend after all.
“By the way, did you start reading the books?” Vivian asked, as she kept chewing on her meat.
“Yep,” I responded. “I’ve already read the first half of the summoning book. I should be done in a few days.”
The young girl stared at me in awe. “Really? You’re fast!”
“I tend to read a lot on my free time,” I explained. “That’s probably why.”
“Are you the studious type?”
“I guess…” There was a hint of doubt in my voice.
Reading has always been one of my favorite activities, but I only read about things I liked, so I never really considered it a studious hobby. I do know for sure that I would’ve never opened a book about politics if my tutors hadn’t forced me.
“What about you?” I returned my attention to Vivan. “What were you doing until now?”
“Practicing,” she answered, her mouth filled with partially masticated meat. She is a commoner alright. I guess she wasn’t taught about etiquette and manners. “I’m not very talented, so I need to train regularly if I don’t want to fall behind.”
So she is diligent, after all. I didn’t get the wrong impression.
“By the way, I heard you were involved in that accident a few days ago.” Vivian continued, nibbling on her fork, her plate now almost empty. “Did you see it? The legendary beast?”
A smirk played on my lips as I understood that she was referring to Pikachu.
“Uh… Yeah, I guess.”
“Really?!” Vivian exclaimed, her mouth and her eyes wide-opened. “What did it look like?”
I scratched my head, trying to think of a way to describe the “fearsome” Pokémon. Since it was said to be legendary, people had some insane expectations about its appearance, and as a wise man -whose name I don’t remember- once said, rumors grow deformed as they travel. The last I heard, the legendary beast was two meters tall, had razor-like claws, and invoked the thunder with its cries.
I felt really bad when I saw the sparkles in Vivian’s eyes, as I was about to crush her expectations. However, I didn’t even get the chance. Before I could start my description, I was distracted by the clanging sound of a plate slamming against the table, right next to me. When I turned my head, I noticed the tall boy who just arrived.
You’ve got to be kidding me…
“What are you doing here, brother?” I asked coldly. In one instant, my good mood was gone.
Aoban didn’t pay attention to the tone in my voice as he took a seat next to me.
“I’m eating,” he simply replied.
“Like I said, what are you doing here, brother?” I repeated. “This is not your refectory.”
Aoban ignored my remark. Instead, he stared straight into my eyes, his face completely serious.
“We need to talk,” he said.
God damn it. The talk. Just as I feared. I broke the eye-contact, sighing.
“Can this wait? I’m with a friend right now.”
Aoban hadn’t noticed Vivian’s presence. When I mentioned her, he frowned, clearly displeased. It didn’t take him long to spot the now completely tensed up Vivian.
“Who are you?” He groaned audibly.
Vivian didn’t openly panic like most people did when confronted to my brother. But I could see that she had noticed from the corner of her eyes Aoban’s judging glare.
“Erm… My name’s Vivian.” She introduced herself with a small voice.
Aoban raised a skeptical eyebrow. “How did you guys meet?”
“Brother,” I cut him off. “What do you think you’re doing right now?”
“Getting acquainted with your friend.”
“No, you’re interrogating her,” I corrected, as I crossed my arms against my chest. I gave him a stern look, but he simply ignored it. I let out a heavy sigh. “Fair enough, I’ll introduce her to you. This is Vivian, we met on this campus, like most people. She helped me find my way back when I was lost and we became friends. What else would you like to know? Her address? Her parent’s occupation? Her hobbies?”
Aoban shot me an annoyed glare. It was straight provocation. I was perfectly aware of it. But it was time for him understand that he was violating my personal boundaries.
“I’m just worried for you,” he tried to justify himself.
I sighed. “I can take care of myself, I’m no longer a child.”
“You’re a target, Lyni. And you’re too naive for your own good. People will try to deceive you.”
“Like I said, I can take care of myself,” I repeated, impatience growing in my voice. “Besides, if you dealt with your own problems, maybe I wouldn’t be a target in the first place.”
I wasn’t looking in his direction, but I could guess his expression right now. Before he could say anything, I continued. Now that I made my point clear, I had no intention of resuming our argument from this afternoon. “Where’s Lukas anyway? And what about your friends?”
Aoban didn’t reply immediately. “They’re at the Eastern Refectory. I came alone.” His voice was filled with acrimony.
Since I understood he wasn’t going to leave, I decided to confront him about his reasons for coming.
I turned in his direction, expecting to see him, but instead, I saw the face of a stranger who just butted in between us.
“Hello! May I sit here?”
Who in the world…?
The stranger didn’t even wait for a reply. He casually sat at our table before greeting us with a broad smile. He was being unusually friendly, yet, I couldn’t remember him from anywhere. He was definitely older than me. There was something mature about him, I couldn’t put my finger on it. But his brown curls and his freckled complexion gave him a strong boy-next door vibe.
I gave a quick glance at my side. Vivian was growing more and more uncomfortable. Too many people at this table. To think that it was supposed to be only the two of us…
“What do you think you’re doing, right now?” Aoban asked with a threatening tone.
“Chill down, Whiteheart. I’m not here for you.”
Great. Another one of my brother’s acquaintances. Now I definitely don’t want to know him. Moreover, they don’t seem to be on friendly terms.
“You shouldn’t be here,” Aoban continued. “This is not your refectory.”
“I return you the remark. This isn’t your refectory either.”
Yes, thank you.
“Find yourself another table. My sister’s here.”
A smirk played on the stranger’s face. “That gives me as much right as you to stay here. You see, my sister is also here.”
His sister? He can’t possibly mean… He shifted my gaze on the only other girl at this table. Her head lowered, her bangs didn’t allow me to see her face anymore, but I could see her clenching her fists under the table.
“She’s your sister?” Aoban groaned.
“Come on Vivian, don’t stay silent. Why don’t you introduce me to your new friend?” The boy was displaying a bright smile as he said this. However, the tone of his voice didn’t sound even remotely friendly.
“No, I…” Vivian’s voice was barely audible. Her head kept sinking even lower than it already was. It almost seemed like we were going to be the same height.
“I knew something was fishy…” Brother clicked his tongue and grabbed my wrist. “We’re leaving.” He then declared.
He suddenly pulled me, forcing me to get up.
“Wait, let go!”
“She’s not your friend,” he said.
I tried to break free of his grasp but he was using much more strength than usual. And if it was going to be strength competition, I had no chance of winning. He was clearly mad.
“Let go!” I yelled. “You’re hurting me!”
Aoban suddenly loosened his grasp, allowing me to break free.
“Come on, Whiteheart. You don’t want to make a scene, do you?”
Brother’s eyelid twitched as he shot a threatening glare at the boy.
“What did you came here for exactly?” He asked.
The boy smirked. “I told you, I didn’t come for you.” He shifted his attention me, and his smirk changed into a wide smile. “You’re Lynett, right? I have a proposal for you.”
I could hear the grinding noise of brother’s teeth behind me.
“My name is Fabio Rutherder,” the stranger finally introduced himself. “It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
I can’t say the same but… Rutherder? It sounds familiar…
“He’s the son of the duke,” Aoban grunted in a low voice.
The son of a duke? Then he has a higher social standing than us? Wait. Wait, wait, wait, wait. The Duke Rutherder? I remember that name. Isn’t it he the pervert I was supposed to be married off to? The one with three wives or something? How could I forget. He is quite infamous in our kingdom. Although polygamy was legal, in aristocracy, it was considered highly immoral, especially in a religious kingdom like ours. Yet, the Duke Rutherder shamelessly kept seeking for new concubines, and as the king’s younger brother, nobody tried to stop him. So he’s the son of such a depraved noble? And what about Vivian? I thought she was a commoner. Is she an illegitimate child? Thinking about it, does it mean I could have become Vivian’s stepmother? Dear gods…
Fabio glared at Vivian for a few seconds before returning his attention to me.
“You seem to have gotten friendly with this dead-weight,” he said. “But she’ll be of no use to you whatsoever. I recommend distancing yourself from her.”
What the f***? That’s rude. That’s your sister you’re talking about.
Vivian didn’t try to defend herself. She simply gave a resigned smile, obviously used to this kind of treatment.
“I heard you want to join the Tournament,” Fabio continued.
“How about you join my group?” He finally proposed. “For you to have been transfered without an exam, you must be quite skillful, am I wrong? I even heard you got yourself an apprenticeship.”
So this is what he had in mind.
“My group consists only of the best elements,” Fabio explained proudly. “We are among the favourites for the upcoming tournament, so if you want to enter the competition, your best chances are with us. How about it? Not a big deal, right? I’ll even be your friend if you need one.”
The arrogance in his tone was really starting to piss me of. And I wasn’t the only one.
“What do you think you’re doing, right now?” Aoban spoke up, exasperated. “She will not join your group, nor will she be your friend.”
“I’m pretty sure she can decide for herself, Whiteheart.” Fabio replied, his smile unwavering. “The first tests are group trials. She can’t join the tournament without a team.”
“She can join mine, that’s not a problem,” brother retorted.
“Don’t talk nonsense. Yours is already full. What will people think if you kick out one of your members just so that you can include your sister?”
“That’s my problem. She’s joining my team, so back off.”
Um, excuse me? Does my opinion not count? I’m done with this. In the end, it’s another of Aoban’s issues. They can argue all they want, I’m out of here. I took Vivian’s hand, pulling her out of her thoughts, as I signaled her to come with me.
“Lyni, where are you going?” Brother asked.
“I’m leaving. I’m not joining any of your teams.” I replied coldly.
“I thought you wanted to enter the tournament,” Fabio said. “You can’t join if you’re alone, you know?”
“I’m aware. But I’m not alone. I have a team.”
Aoban and Fabio both furrowed the brows in incomprehension, so I raised Vivian’s hand.
“She’s my team,” I declared.
Fabio’s smile vanished, no longer amused by the situation.
“Don’t you want to win?” He inquired.
“I do, and I will.”
“With this dead-weight?”
“You heard me.”
He suddenly burst out laughing.
“I misjudged you, Lynett Maedis Whiteheart. What a let down. You aren’t nearly as bright as I was expecting you to be. I guess you are a Whiteheart, after all.”
Ignoring his mockery, I headed to the exit. But this time, it was Aoban’s turn to stop.
“She’s a Rutherder,” he stated as he grabbed my arm.
I shook my head. “No, she’s just Vivian.”
I shook away his hand and passed by him, dragging the confused Vivian with me, and I hurried to the exit, before any of them had the heart to stop us. Even once we left the refectory, I kept walking for a moment, making sure to get far enough not to be found. Once we were finally alone, I let out a heavy sigh. Talk about a first evening with a friend…
“Are you okay?” Vivian eventually broke the silence.
I gave her a weak smile. “Yeah, sorry about that. I got you involved in my problems.”
“I guess we’re even then,” she chuckled. “Besides, I know how Fabio is. I understand you needed an excuse to get yourself out of this situation.”
I then understood she was referring to my earlier statement.
“Vivian,” I called her out. “It wasn’t an excuse. I meant what I said before. I do want us to be a team.”
Her eyes widened, she blinked at me several times.
“Did you… not hear what Fabio said?”
“He wasn’t lying, you know? I am a dead-weight. I told you, didn’t I? Even my previous teammates kicked me out of their group!”
“I have no intention of abandoning you later on, you don’t have to worry about that.”
“That’s not what I meant! Don’t get me wrong, I really appreciate the thought, but there is no way you’ll even get selected for the preliminaries if you team up with me! At best, I’ll be completely useless. At worst, I’ll slow you down!”
That definitely won’t be an issue. I smiled at her, trying to ease her heart.
“Vivian, you’re my friend. I want us to be together.”
Her face initially sank in disbelief. But then her expression changed into one of relief. A weak smile played on her lips, and quickly grew into a large grin.
“See? You are nice after all!”
“Is that a yes?” I asked. “Are you accepting my offer?”
“Do I have the choice?” She joked.
“Still, who would’ve thought I’d be finding a new group so fast!” Vivian exclaimed. “You do know we’ve known each other for only a day, right? I could be taking advantage of you!”
“Ugh, please don’t say that. You’re starting to sound like my brother,” I complained.
Vivian chuckled softly.
“I’m a bit jealous of you,” she then admitted with a bitter smile.
“You have such a great brother.”
That’s… The impression she got?
“Vivian,” I called her out. “Do you like my brother?”
Her cheeks suddenly turned red. I’m guessing she felt her face burning hot as she immediately looked away and tried to hide her rosy features behind her slim fingers. Now, not only her cheeks, but her whole face turned scarlet.
“W-What are you saying?” She panicked. “Of course not! What gave you this idea?”
She was being so obvious I couldn’t help but let a grin spread over my face, which she didn’t miss.
“What’s with that smug face, I’m telling you that’s not it!” She hurried on. “You got it wrong! I-I mean, I do think he’s pretty cool and handsome but… That’s not what I meant when I said that!”
Aren’t you just admitting it, though? And handsome? Who? Aoban?
It makes sense though. If she likes him, that would explain why she didn’t run away on sight when we met. Most people feared my brother so they didn’t get involved with me. But when she saw me for the first time, although she perfectly knew who I was, Vivian didn’t try to avoid me or anything. She might even have gotten close to me because I’m the sister, but even if it’s the case, I don’t hold it against her. I mean, it’s not like she pushed her friendship on me -quite the contrary.
That’s a pretty good thing though, isn’t it? I like Vivian, so I wouldn’t mind her dating my brother. She seems like a good person so far. And if they get married, she might even become my sister-in-law. That… actually doesn’t sound so bad. As someone who belongs to nobility, I’ve always thought that Aoban would end up marrying a spoiled little lady. I’d much rather have Vivan as m-
“Lynett!” Her voice suddenly pulled me out of my thoughts. “You’re not listening, are you? Stop imagining things! I’m telling you you got the wrong idea!”
Her brows furrowed, she deeply looked into my eyes, her lips firmly pressed together in a flustered expression.
I didn’t insist any further. I did want to tease her, but I didn’t want to upset her. She denied it so hard… Maybe she isn’t even aware of her own feelings? Or maybe I’m really getting the wrong idea… A maiden’s heart is such a mystery.
Vivan let out a relieved sigh.
“When I said I was jealous about your brother, I meant your relationship with him,” she then explained. “I didn’t mean your brother himself.”
“What’s so special about our relationship?” I asked, my eyes squinted.
“Well, he cares about you. I suppose that’s how normal siblings are.” Although she was smiling, she had a somewhat sad expression on her face.
Normal siblings? Does she not get along with her siblings? Thinking about it, it’s true that she didn’t seem close to her brother. Maybe she wants to talk about it?
“Are you saying this because of Fabio?” I asked.
Vivan’s bitter smile confirmed my thoughts.
“He was mean to you,” I added. “Are you guys really related?”
“Well, we do have the same father, but we don’t share the same mother. I’m an illegitimate child.” She explained, confirming my earlier assumption.
That explains why she does not carry her father’s surname unlike her brother.
“My mother was a servant in the Rutherder household,” Vivan continued. “She was chased out by the legal wife when she got pregnant with me, but the Duke took us back in when he found out. I was already seven at that time, so when I met Fabio for the first time, my arrival wasn’t looked upon favorably. As far as I can remember, we were never close.”
Sounds like a tough childhood.
“So he was always mean to you?” I inquired once she was done talking.
Vivian shrugged. “It can’t be helped. He’s the legitimate son and I’m just the child of a mistress. It was the same thing with the other children of the household. Ultimately, we’re only half related.” She marked a pause before shifting her gaze to me. “That’s why I’m a bit jealous of you.”
I see. She must have had a lonely childhood. If she was never close to any of her siblings, it’s no wonder she’s envious of my relationship with my brother. Even if we’re going through a bad phase, we do get along pretty well. He’s my only brother and my best friend, I wouldn’t trade that for anything in the world. However, I think she misunderstood something.
“You know,” I told her. “I’m an illegitimate child as well. And Aoban is actually my half-brother.”
Vivian’s eyes widened. “Really?”
I nodded. “I was legitimized by my uncle later on, but I was born out of wedlock. Aoban is the son my father had with his first wife.”
“And you guys are that close despite of this?”
Vivian blinked several times at my response. Then, she let out a small chortle. “Then I’m even more jealous of you!” She joked.
I wonder what was so different for her. Our situations are pretty similar, yet the outcome is so different. Is it the age? Unlike her, I have known my brother ever since the moment I came into this world. Or maybe it’s because Aoban never knew his mom. We share the same father by blood, but we also share the same mother in our heart. That makes us practically full siblings, right? I never had any other sibling, so I don’t have any ground of comparison, but I don’t think being only half related should affect a relationship that much…
“You know what, maybe Fabio is just an ass…” I concluded.
Vivian burst out laughing.
“That’s probably the case!”