Later that afternoon, heavens opened up.
A bit too early in the year for the start of the dreaded Monsoon season, but as if to mock the expectations, the rain poured down quite heavily. The sun hid behind the thick veil of gray clouds, and never showed its face again for the rest of the day.
This meant Damien had to go out and perform inspection on the riverbanks that were in the middle of getting reinforced. He stopped by at the house to grab a quick bite to eat, and left again. In his face, a permanent crease of worry staining his forehead, at another prospect of an all-nighter, this time accompanied by the unexpected deluge to boot.
Because of the rain, Kaleena’s outdoor practice session for the afternoon was changed into an indoor theory studies. The two Sylvain kids went home when the sobered up Alex came to fetch them just before the weather turned truly dastardly.
The atmosphere in the house was weird. On one hand, Lizbeth was worried about her husband. Having only one arm, the disadvantages were obvious in situations where the footing wasn’t certain.
On the other hand, the kids were still abuzz after the sighting of the Sky Ark. Without a doubt, the appearance of the flying vessel signaled the arrival of Future, of a new beginning. A future where anything and everything seem possible, as long as one had the necessary drive.
The Empire of Argos was massive, and traveling from one place to another took an unimaginable amount of time and money, not to mention requiring intense preparation. But with the advancement of the Ark, that was about to change. The speed at which the information exchanges hands now would definitely increase and with this, Kain was sure the development of the territories should accelerate. Which was all-round good news, he thought.
It also meant that in not too distant future, he’d get to visit the capital city of Argos. Snippets of description from various books weren’t enough to sate his curiosity, and he genuinely wanted to see what the supposed metropolis in a fantasy setting looked like.
In all honesty, Kain hadn’t even been to Lafayette yet. No, not even half a mile away from his home in Riverfield, never mind outskirts of the village.
No wonder than, that he developed an itch where only way to scratch that was to get some sun, and feel the winds of wanderlust on his face.
Obviously that would only happen when he was a bit older so, he had to play a bit of a waiting game. Good thing he was feeling rather well in the cozy environment of the Lomax household, all the while getting spoiled a bit by the people around him. Not that things were luxurious or anything, but as far as living in a countryside went, this was pretty ace.
After dinner, the family, with the exception of Delilah who went home for the day, gathered on the upper floor nursery for a quality time together. Too bad Damien had to miss it.
Lizbeth and Rosy went downstairs to get some snacks, leaving the kids alone for a few minutes. Kaleena was reading a book, while Kain was standing upright, leaning against the sills of a half-opened window, staring at the outside world.
Of course there were no glass in the house. It was considered an item for the extremely wealthy folks, and cost an arm and a leg just to have one installed. So, despite being a Baron house, there were no glass here, including the windows. No mirrors too, although grooming of oneself was usually aided by the reflections on various polished metal surfaces throughout the house.
The windows of the nursery were made of sturdy wood, swinging open outwards. The falling rain was kept out by the extended thatched roof section, allowing Kain to gaze out via the opened window and view the world outside without getting wet.
Usually on a sunny day, he could make out the tiny outline of the city in the distance, Lafayette. But at this very moment, the pelting rain hid everything from him.
A lightning struck somewhere far. A flash of white brightened the landscape for a second, and then, a boom followed. Windows rattled, coming loose from the position it was affixed to.
Wincing, Kain leaned forward, reaching out to grab hold of the wayward window panel, but he realized belatedly he was far too short to do so.
“Why don’t you just close the window? It’s noisy you know.” Kaleena said disinterestedly without taking her eyes off the book.
“But I wanna gaze outside,” Kain replied, his voice full of frustration at his inability to do something as simple as keeping a damn window open.
It did look rather dangerous, for a young child like him trying to reach out to the window panel, and if there were adults present, they would’ve stopped him already.
What stopped him instead, was when he noticed a movement in the darkness. The rain clouds also blocked the moons from casting their lights so it was of course very dark and gloomy. Kain could only see the movement because of a several flickering lights, probably coming from lamps or torches. Whatever it was, its intended destination seemed like his house, as it got closer and closer.
Kain narrowed his eyes, as if that’d help him out in getting a better look. He wondered what, or who could it be. The troublesome riverbank occupying Damien’s attention was to the opposite direction from where the lights were coming from, so it couldn’t have been his father.
Soon the dark movement became a dark shape, faintly illuminated by a quartet of enclosed oil lamps on its four corners. Its general outline was that of a stagecoach, being pulled by a pair of horses. And alongside it, another rider with a cape and a hood pulled tight to shield the face from the incessant rain.
Kain recognized the coach – he could tell that it was from a ferrying service located in Lafayette, judging by the shape of the coach body. The rider next to it seemed like one of the village guards, someone who was usually standing by the entrance. The hood prevented his face from being seen, but Kain was fairly sure of the man’s identity. He also came to his house a few times before, riding the horse in the same posture every time.
Watching them getting closer, he suddenly felt one of his trade mark bad premonition. It smelled like trouble heading his way. Thinking that he should inform his mother, he turned around only to see Lizbeth entering the nursery with a tray of cookies on it.
Seizing this chance, Kain spoke, while pointing outside the window.
“Mom, there’s a stagecoach coming here. I think Mathieu is next to it.”
Tilting her head, Lizbeth came over and looked outside.
“A stagecoach, at this late hour? Oh my, you’re correct, Kain. Wonder what’s this all about?”
She frowned, knowing well it probably didn’t concern Damien’s wellbeing. But she couldn’t be sure, of course. Life, after all, had a way of throwing a curve ball when least expected.
“Kaleena, would you be a dear and look after your brother until I return?”
Lizbeth stroked her daughter’s head, the hastily left the room, quickly heading downstairs, her footsteps slightly echoing against the sounds of falling rain. She went to find Rosy and they headed for the front door, waiting.
Kaleena came over next to Kain and tried to pull him deeper into the room, away from the window.
“Come now Kain, sit next to me and let’s read the book!”
“But I wanna look.”
“You will catch cold if you keep staring outside like that. Be a good boy and listen to your big sister.”
“Don’t worry, I won’t catch anything. Hey, don’t you wanna see too?”
“No, I do not. You aren’t going to make this easy, are you?”
“No~pe. C’mon, let’s look together.”
Kaleena was about to blow a fuse when the stagecoach finally arrived by the low stone wall that marked the front yard’s boundary from the road. The rider, Mathieu, dismounted and jogged towards the front door, all the while keeping his head low.
There was a short chat between him and Lizbeth, but it was difficult to hear the contents from where Kain was. He thought about going downstairs to eavesdrop, see what was being said. Kaleena leaned over the window sill next to her brother and peeked out as well, as she too could hear the indistinct murmuring. She was wondering just who could have come at this late hour, in this atrocious weather, no less.
Whatever was said, Mathieu left and headed back towards the coach. He knocked on the door before leaning in to speak to whoever was inside. Kain felt that the occupant, or occupants, must’ve been some big shots from Lafayette, if the guardsman like Mathieu sought out proper decorum while getting soaked to the bones.
Next, not minding the rain, he began dismounting the luggage from under the a large tarpaulin atop the stagecoach. The coach driver helped out with that.
In the meantime, the passengers disembarked, allowing Kain and his sister to get a good look.
There were two people; one big, the other quite small. Covered head to toe in plain gray mantle cloaks the figures moved silently towards the entrance of the house. The big figure slung a rather large slab-sided object, wrapped in similar cloak, over his shoulder with ease. By the looks of it, it must’ve weighed a ton yet this guy was handling it like it was nothing.
Also, Kain noticed a soft shimmering of Aeterna oozing from the object, kinda like how it was with Damien’s saber. But that leak came from the minute gap between the blade and the sheath.
With this object, Aeterna infused with it seemed quite thick and strong, since it permeated past the wrapped cloth, visible even through the rain and the darkness.
Intrigued by the arrival of strangers, Kaleena silently looked on, unable to see the leaking Aeterna.
The smaller figure walked right beside the large figure. Kain couldn’t see their faces but, their body languages had this worn-out feel, as if they were fatigued from a long journey. The roads would be in a bad shape in this weather, plus the distance between Lafayette and Riverfield needed at least half a day to cover on a horseback even in the best of the conditions, so it was likely his deduction was correct.
The big figure looked up, at the window where the two children were. This allowed Kain to confirm that it was a he, a man in his early to mid thirties, slightly older than Damien. The darkness prevented him from getting a better look, but the piercing gaze was still felt by the young Lomax boy, sending a chilly sensation up his back.
Kain shivered a little.
The feeling wasn’t of unpleasantness, but rather…. it felt disconcerting, the way he was stared at.
Or maybe he was looking at Kaleena?
Kain mulled the possibility but one thing was for sure – he didn’t enjoy the gaze not one bit.
Steam rising from his lips, the man led the smaller figure hurriedly into the house, while the coach driver and Mathieu carried the modest amount of luggage behind them.
Kaleena and Kain looked at each other, silently communicating their next moves. And they knew exactly what their actions were going to be.
Immediately they headed downstairs, stopping at the middle of the steps when Lizbeth asked Mathieu to inform her husband. She then gave some extra cash to the driver as a thanks, sending him away as a rather happy man.
The lit lamps in the enclosed space of the entrance revealed the identities of the guests, as their hoods were lowered.
The big guy and a young girl similar in age as Kaleena; her resemblance to the big guy suggesting that they were a father and a daughter.
The little girl definitely had a fatigued expression but still, she managed to stand upright proudly, while doing her best to come across as dignified. Kain thought she must’ve had a lot of practice to appear like that, but her hair was disheveled by the hood and her efforts were undermined by that.
She wasn’t aware of that fly in her ointment, which was a bit funny and at the same time, pitiable.
As for her father, he was tall, dark, and handsome in a dignified manner. Kain noted both the man and his child were quite refined. If someone told him this big guy was a really high-ranking noble, then he’d believed that person.
The man had a short and dark hair, chiseled, square jawline, sharp and alert eyes, plus a small scar on his beardless chin. All in all, it was a look of a manly man.
His current facial expression was like that of a saluting soldier in a military funeral, all solemn, regal and dignified.
“It has been a while, Lord Derrick,” Lizbeth greeted as she did a small curtsy. Rosy also followed suit. “Regrettably, my husband, Lord Damien, is out attending an urgent matter. But I expect him to return shortly after receiving the news of your arrival.”
“Good evening to you, Lady Lizbeth. Forgive us for the sudden intrusion at this late hour.” Derrick nodded. “You look well.”
Kain thought that even his voice pretty much followed his face, all booming and manly.
“Thank you. You as well.” Lizbeth smiled warmly, and lowered her head, as well as her gaze, to the young girl at his side. “You must be Lady Katrina. Oh my, you’ve grown so much. Do you perchance remember me?”
The young girl, Katrina, returned a greeting that sounded a bit robotic. “I am indeed Katrina of The House Septima Lomax. Thank you for having us in your beautiful abode, Lady Lizbeth.”
Her voice was trembling a little, failing to disguise the tiredness within it.
Lizbeth noticed this, and like a skilled mother that she was, she moved things along. “Miss Rosy, please see to the luggage of our guests. Lord Derrick, the roads have become treacherous of late, and must have been taxing during your journey. I shall have a bedroom prepared immediately – why not rest awhile, and make a proper introductions early ‘morrow?”
“That sounds rather agreeable, my Lady. Thank you for your offer; we shall gladly take you upon it.” He nodded slowly, as he rested his hand on Katrina’s head.
As Lizbeth led the father and the daughter through to the ground floor guest bedroom, Derrick’s eyes fell on Kain’s direction once more.
They were certainly aimed at him, no doubt. As to why, it was difficult to tell, as the emotions contained within were clouded.
But Kain had seen enough episodes of those overwrought TV dramas to recognize the type of the stare Derrick was giving him. It wasn’t hostile, nor was it friendly. More like, something to watch out for, only to save himself from whatever trouble there might be in the future, if that made sense.
Oh man, I just wanted to take it easy for a while. What now?!
Kain could only lament his bad luck, for now.
“Everyone, this is my cousin, Lord Derrick Septima Lomax, and his daughter, Lady Katrina Septima Lomax. From today onward, they will be staying with us. Please, assist them if you are able.”
Damien announced to his family during breakfast the following morning.
Kain nodded softly, and glanced at Derrick, noticing some familial resemblance between him and Damien. But, just how far apart were they?
Unless a person was a criminal, or in an indentured servitude, they all had a family name, a system introduced by the Emperor more than two centuries ago. It was all for the sake of a convenient tax collection, apparently.
To differentiate those who had it from who didn’t, nobles had two or more surnames. In the case of Lomax, the branch families identified themselves, as well as their pecking order via the middle name – Damien’s were Lucius, while Derrick’s were Septima.
Kain had no idea which family was the main one yet as no one’s bothered to clarify that.
“Also, uncle Derrick has kindly agreed to become Kaleena’s tutor while he stays here. Isn’t that great? So, don’t you give him any trouble and listen to what he has to say, alright Kain?”
Hey, wait a minute. Why did you single me out?! Kain looked at his father exasperated. He didn’t do anything too eye catching so far, and such warnings didn’t seem appropriate. But then again, Damien’s eyes were sparkling mischievously, so it was more than likely he’s just having a bit of fun at his kid’s expense.
Realizing that he’s been played, Kain just shrugged his shoulders, and turned to look at Lizbeth to see if this arrangement wasn’t something Damien came up with in the heat of the moment.
She already discussed this matter with Damien beforehand so she wasn’t fazed in the slightest by the announcement. But it didn’t mean she was 100% convinced of the benefits this situation would bring.
Still, a loyal wife that she was, she had to concede that it was not a bad arrangement – as long as The Septima house doesn’t act threateningly towards her family.
Knowing her well, Damien sweated just a tiny bit, wondering how she’d react ever since he told her. Thankfully, she was far more understanding than he thought, so that was nice. But he knew she was not completely on-board with it.
He wanted to help his distant cousin as much as possible; and when he found out about the challengesDerrick was facing, he had to offer him a job here as a pretext. He didn’t regret that one bit.
Returning shortly after the complete inspection of the riverbanks, which was sometime before the breaking of dawn, he was relieved to see the Septima father and daughter fast asleep in his home, safe and sound from the possibly perilous journey from the Capital. Knowing they needed rest, he postponed the greetings till breakfast.
It’d been only a few weeks ago when he sent the letter, inviting Derrick to come and stay in Riverfield. To think, he accepted it so quickly.
But Kain and to some extent even Kaleena looked a little skeptical about this sudden appointment. Seeing their reactions, Damien decided it was wise to place Derrick on a proverbial pedestal.
“You see, uncle Derrick is a Silver ranked Divine Knight. That’s a serious pedigree we’re talking about right there. It all means that he’s really, really tough and talented at what he does. It’ll be great when he starts teaching you on all the cool spells and techniques.”
Hearing this, Derrick coughed lightly, as if he was a bit embarrassed by all the praise. “Damien, you don’t have to sell me that hard to your kids.” He hastily tried to stop his cousin from saying more unnecessary things.
“Well, still. Lemme just say this then. To reach a Silver rank as a Divine Knight, a person must be proficient not only at wielding arms, but at Invocation as well. Derrick should be no worse than a Journeyman ranked Invoker, if he’s measured by the current standards.”
Kain vacantly nodded as he had no idea how significant the Silver ranking was. He had some inkling as to what a Divine Knight was supposed to be, but the way ranking works, no clue whatsoever.
The members of the Divine Knight Order were some of the strongest, most capable warriors on the continent. The title was given to a citizen of the Empire upon reaching a certain milestone, or rendering a meritorious service to the cause of the nation and/or the Crown. That’s as far as the scope of Kain’s knowledge went.
“This is Katrina, my daughter. Introduce yourself to your cousins, dear.” Derrick urged the young girl gently. She hadn’t said a word since the night before, and during the breakfast, Kain got an impression she was educated to be a proper stiff-upper-lip aristocrat. The way she sat upright on her chair, the way she held the cutlery, the way she ate – all so prim and robotic. Quite different to how Kain and Kaleena were like.
As if she was waiting for the prompt, she stood up smartly from her chair and did a wonderfully theatrical curtsy, her combed, abundant dark hair bobbing up and down.
“Greetings, my name is Katrina Septima Lomax. I am seven years of age this past Spring. It is my pleasure to make your acquaintance.”
Katrina’s voice was just as rigid as her eating habits, with a slightly forced smile etched across her face. Whether that was because of her still being fatigued from the lengthy journey, or under a different type of state of mind, it wasn’t easy to tell.
Kaleena, being a good girl that she was, returned a hearty welcome, trying her best to imitate the lady-like greeting her cousin just did. As for Kain, he did a small bow of the head and gave a big, impish grin, not knowing that from the side, his smile looked as mischievous as his old man’s.
Formal greetings over, there were small talks abound, but since Kain wasn’t all that interested in it, he simply observed the Septima duo. Under the morning sun he could get a better look at both of them, and the impression he already formed from the night before remained largely intact.
Derrick was certainly someone no one would like to run into in the middle of a dark street after angering him. Katrina had an air of aloofness about her, that indescribable haughtiness he had seen previously from Jonas Bremble, or whatever his name was.
Although, it did feel a bit like as if she was putting up a facade, in order to hide from something.
Kain shifted his gaze to his sister, who was trying her best to talk to Katrina, but their compatibility seemed low. Both girls were struggling to come up with things to say to each other, and even at their young ages, the awkward atmosphere was spreading quite quickly.
This was surprising, seeing that Kaleena had a pretty good relationship with other kids in the village, including Gwendoline and her younger brother.
Kain was debating the merits of meddling in their valiant efforts to become close, when his ears picked up on the conversations of the adults present.
“Thank you again for having us, Damien, Lizbeth. It means a lot to both of us.”
Derrick nodded, his expression somewhat bitter.
“It is not a problem, Derrick. You’re more than welcome in my home.” Damien patted the broad shoulders of his cousin affectionately. “You’ve offered your home to me before. It’s only right that I do the same, in this time of need.”
Derrick sighed resignedly. “In all honesty, I’m tired of it all. It is good to be out from under Father’s shadow like this, and not compete for the position of the successor any longer.”
“Yes, I know what you mean by that.”
Damien nodded sagely. How could he not understand how Derrick felt in this moment? He too was in a similar situation no less than a decade ago, even though he was a second-born son. Well, he didn’t actively set out to inherit the position of the Lucius branch head but still, he was expected to compete regardless of how he felt.
Before the crushing weight of expectations became poison, Damien got out from that succession rat race. Good thing, seeing that he met Lizbeth and married her, stumbled across a lot of grand ol’ adventures, had to face many good and bad people in equal measure, until he arrived at this point in life. Full of content, and growing old gracefully.
As for Derrick, being the eldest meant he had to compete. No choice at all. And with him possessing such an obvious physical talent, it was just plainly impossible not to fight for the position.
In the end though, it all came to naught, and now he was, in all intents and purposes, in exile here.
“Duncan isn’t going to give us any trouble, so do not fret. If anything untoward arises, I shall personally take the responsibility.”
Derrick spoke with a stern face that was hard enough to be used as a material for a statue. He meant every word he said, of course. He was, without a doubt, that kind of a person.
“I’ll hold you to that, Lord Derrick. Your younger brother, Lord Duncan, isn’t the one to forget his enemies and opponents easily.” Lizbeth said, her voice only a few degrees above being cold enough to instantly freeze water.
Even Kain felt the chill, never mind Damien and Derrick. Sweating profusely, the two Lomaxes tried to mumble some inaudible excuses and calming words. There were no indication if the target of their humility paid attention or not.
Meanwhile, Kaleena’s attempt at small talk with Katrina took a turn for the worse.
“Uhm, cousin Katrina, you did not come with your mother?”
“….No, cousin Kaleena, I did not. I couldn’t, even if I wished to, as my mother is no longer with the living.”
For the second time that day, in as many minutes, Kain felt the chill once more. Katrina looked supremely annoyed now, and there was a barely suppressed fire in her deep green eyes.
Intimidated slightly by the intense glare, Kaleena drew back, and the uncomfortable silence filled the gap between them.
It was painful to be near them, so Kain decided he would excuse himself and go to the nursery or something.
Before he went too far though, he heard Kaleena trying to restart the conversation.
“I didn’t mean any ill with that remark. I apologize. I only wish to get along well with you, Lady Katrina.”
Extending her hand in consolatory gesture, Kaleena spoke earnestly.
Seeing this, Katrina hesitated for a second, before taking up the offered hand and shaking it rather firmly.
“I hope to get along as well. My father’s training regime can be unreasonable at times, so please, do try your best to keep up and not slow us down.”
Oh snap, she said what now?!
Kain grimaced when he heard Katrina speak rather coolly. Slowly turning back, he saw the two girls still shaking hands, but hot damn, he definitely also saw sparks clashing in front of them, with air surrounding the two warping weirdly. It was all his imagination, obviously.
“Who slows who down remains to be seen, yes?”
Kaleena grinned but her eyes weren’t smiling. Her hand was shaking Katrina’s quite vigorously, as if she wanted to rip that arm off.
“No need, it’s clear who it will be. Certainly, not someone who rode on the very first flight of The Sky Ark from the Capital, wouldn’t you say?”
Not wanting to lose, Katrina matched the speed of Kaleena’s shaking, and then increased it some more.
“Is that so? How admirable. For a pampered city folk, that is.”
Oh boy, this is getting dangerous.
Kain’s grimace became deeper, watching these two girls growling at each other. But if he stepped in now, he’d get shredded to bits by them due to the size difference. Troubled as to what to do, he sent a helpless gaze over at his parents, but Damien and Derrick were in a world of their own, talking like two long lost brothers that they probably were.
Only Lizbeth belatedly noticed the behavior of the girls, and made a move to stop them from wrenching each others’ arms off.
“Now now, you two, please behave yourselves. No more conducts unbecoming of a lady, this instant.”
With a Hmph! Katrina withdrew first. She was trying to look unperturbed, but her face was flushed red from all the heavy shaking, sweat clearly visible on her face.
Kaleena stood with hands on hips, also quite annoyed at this development. She was vexed at how to describe her current feelings, but one thing was for sure, she didn’t want to lose to this girl no matter what.
As for Kain, he silently cursed in his heart, knowing that one more source of headache had entered his life. Nothing he could do about that now. Best he just accept it and move on – he’s been doing that a lot nowadays anyway.
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