The gate with the emblem of our family peaked in the center before us, arching downwards and then rising again to meet the columns that they were attached to at the hinges. Spellstone lanterns that radiated a somber light topped the column, attached to the stone fence that stretched around the perimeter of the manor. It was high enough that it obscured the green lawn that stretched between the entrance and the gateway, only broken up by a stone path with guiding lights leading to the end of the pathway where the estate laid.
As I stood there for a moment and stared at the emblem of feathers in motion, as if blown by the wind, the words of Alice’s mother came to mind. Twenty years ago was around the time that Grandfather died along with his eldest son, if I remember correctly. Father became the head of our family then because he hadn’t been with them at the time, but from what I heard things went poorly for the family in terms of finances until Mother married in about a year later.
…Was it a coincidence that they died after that formal event back then?
I never paid much attention to the details involving the family, given that I didn’t stand to gain much as the thirdborn. Much less after I witnessed one case with Mother involved in being rather cruel by my standards. At that point, leaving those studies and issues for my brother and sister was fine by me, so that I could focus on other things.
But now I was starting to lament my willful ignorance since Alice’s family was tied into things deeper than I would have liked. In all honesty, I wanted to believe that I was being paranoid. That I was forcing together pieces of a puzzle that didn’t exist. But I couldn’t help but worry that these secrets in the dark were going to ruin what we have. I had to know more.
Ignorance was bliss because knowledge was a burden. But the ignorant couldn’t do anything in the end. The knowledgeable could at least prepare for the worst outcome.
I’ll have to converse with Father about it then. Taking a deep breath, I pressed my hand against the emblem in the center of the gate. It thrummed beneath my palm, seeing if I had the right to enter. Naturally, I did and so the gate opened, granting us passage to the manor.
“That still tickles,” Aeria said, dropping the air-woven umbrella she had been keeping up the moment we stepped through the gateway. The wards here weren’t as accommodating to her as they had been in the academy, so passing through it was noticeable for her.
Fortunately, the rain could no longer touch us on the inside. It’s constant drumming was distant as it pattered against an invisible barrier that covered the air above the manor, kept at bay by magnificent spellwork. The ensorcelled gemstones responsible for it and the ward system were connected through arrays, laid out in a decorative pattern on the interior of the stone fence.
The housekeeper for the manor opened the door for us by the time we reached it. “Welcome Home, Master Kowler.”
“Thank you, Miss Taun.” I stepped through the door’s threshold and felt a thermal veil pass over my body. Like pushing past a thin curtain of warmth. Aeria’s wings fluttered to life as the cold was shaken off and the door closed.
“It’s good that you’ve made it back safely.” Her blue eyes ran from the top of my head to my feet and then back up to my bag. “Should I assume you’ve shrunken your luggage?”
“I have…” I took a deep breath. A moment to decide on how to approach things. Then I asked her, “I don’t suppose Father or Mother are available?”
Her blue eyes folded in softly. That would be a ‘No’ then. “Keiler will be arriving with Karolyn by tomorrow evening. And Claudia is preoccupied, though I imagine you may be able speak with her for a moment or so.”
I shook my head. “No. There’s no need to bother her. I’ll simply set the documents where she can review them at her leisure and head off to my room.”
“Actually, Clarus has volunteered to review them on your mother’s behalf.” She held her hands together. Apologetically. “In fact, he has asked that I escort you there the moment you arrived, alone.”
I felt my eye twitch beneath my glasses. “I wouldn’t want to waste his time either, so—”
“I understand you may not be enthusiastic about it, but it would be best to simply get it out of the way as soon as possible, so you can enjoy your visit.” She extended her hand in the direction of his study. “Come now. Be good.”
Delaying the inevitable wouldn’t help anything in this instance, I supposed. “…Very well. Aeria, please go to my room and remain there until I get back.”
She flew off without contest.
“I’ve gone ahead and set aside Aeria’s toys in your room, so you needn’t worry about her,” Miss Taun told me. “Will you be staying long after the wedding?”
“No. I only plan to remain for the ceremony and then return back to the shop.” Unfortunately, even with Johan’s help the Sylphide’s hours of operation would be less than ideal given Alice’s new schedule. But it was tolerable compared to having it closed for several days entirely. And I was sure that Alice could manage better than I could so long as it was just running the storefront.
“I suppose that can’t be helped…” There was a measured pause in her response as she walked alongside of me, but I couldn’t quite understand why. Then her tone perked up. “Even so, it will be nice to have the whole family in attendance for the first time in years. You always got along with Franz, didn’t you?”
My foot paused mid-step at that. “Cousin Franz will be here too?”
“Yes. Your mother has been attempting to mend things with her brother as of late, so both will be attending the ceremony.” She smiled. “Isn’t that wonderful?”
“I…will admit it is unexpected,” I conceded. They used to stop by more often in my childhood, but I rarely ever saw them after they became the black sheep of our family due to the… disagreement between Mother and Uncle. “Will there be anyone else attending the ceremony?”
“Just the groom and his immediate family. They will arrive with your father and sister tomorrow evening.”
Well, knowing my sister’s behavior, I suspect she’ll wish for me to just stay out of the way. We were never close, but I was a non-threat to her even before she began to act contrarian to Mother and if I had nothing to offer her, she had no interest in me. It was better than way, I think.
But Franz being here might prove somewhat insightful given he has traveled with his father to several regions. I would like to talk with him if I had the chance. But I still needed to finish my obligation to Mister Rieth before the ceremony. Then there was the matter of the gateway too…
“Here we are.” Miss Taun came to a stop in front the door to my brother’s study and knocked twice. “Master Clarus, I’ve brought Master Kowler.”
“Send him in.”
She opened the door at the prompt and then gestured for me to enter inside. Once I’ve done so, she shuts the door behind me. The lock clicked gently into place, leaving me locked in the room with him.
The study was relatively modest-sized, smaller than my workshop. The interior was largely polished wood with a small chandelier hanging from the ceiling, illumination spellstones casting their light down while the curtains to his windows were shut. The shelves on the left side of the windows were packed with referential text, journals, and organized documents that were filed away inside of folders that were neatly arranged. On the right side were things like scales, counting frames of varying sizes, and other tools of the trade needed to follow in Mother’s footsteps.
Clarus was seated at his large wooden desk in a leather chair, his frock coat draped over the top. His pen moved with precise and slow motions to ensure his writing script was clear yet elegant. It seemed he was busy doing the last leg of paperwork in front of him with a pair of reading glasses hiding his eyes beneath brown hair that was neatly cut short.
“Sit,” he ordered, voice as distant and to the point as ever. “Documents out.”
I stepped forward, transition from hardwood to the decorative carpet where the seat opposite his desk was. The wooden seat groan slightly as I sat down, back pressing against the crest rail. I reached through the bag and grabbed the documents that were meant for Mother, placing them just past the edge of the desk.
Then… I waited silently until he decided to call upon me. It was all I could do. Interrupting him would cause more problems than it was worth.
Clarus took his time in finishing what he was doing before transitioning over to the documents I brought minutes later. He looked them over with a single glance, combing through the individual pages quickly. Checking the format of them, I presumed. Then he set them down and started asking questions.
“Kowler, why is there a magic broom listed among the assets?” he asked, looking up at me for the first time in months. “Last I checked, your dabbling has not given you access to magic.”
Here we go. I exhaled through my nose and answered, “It’s used for deliveries locally. The students that work with me through the academy are magic-users and so they can use it. It’s part of the services we provide for customers who place an order.”
That was true enough. It saw occasional use in the last few months. Not nearly as much as Alice’s personal use, but still.
“Sell it,” he ordered. “If they’re attending the academy then they don’t need you to provide them with it, they’ll have their own. There’s no sense in owning an asset that you, the main one who handles the most important operations of the business, can’t make use of. I’ll expect to see the entry of it being sold by the start of next year.”
“Fine,” I said. I had no intention of doing so, of course, but there was no way I could admit that nor waste time in a losing argument. I’d just remove it from the asset listings easily enough and fake an entry, provided I save the money for it from the allowance I took from the business. Considering how much it had depreciated when it had five years of useful life minimum, not including the rough handling caused by Aeria’s flying, it…
It would be tight, but not impossible to obtain. I could get around the receipt issue as well by claiming to sell it to another student too. So, it was a minor inconvenience in the grand scheme of things.
Continuing, Clarus then asked, “Next, I’ve noticed that your liabilities have increased in the last month in comparison to the previous ones. Why is this the case?”
That would be the last month of failures when it came to my efforts as of late. Since the places that I usually have to order from wholesale are directly linked to businesses Mother have a hand in, he probably has the invoices to back that. However, his education didn’t stretch far enough to know what I was doing with them, only that I was doing something. “I’ve been working on making something new to sell, so that has been going into research and development. It’s been showing some promise as of late, but I need a little more time before its marketable.”
He doesn’t care. “Put a stop to that then. I know you have a habit of doing unnecessary things with your pet, but at this point you’re taking needless risks when you haven’t even been in business for a full year.”
“With all due respect, I should be within the margin of shrinkage when it comes to that,” I said in contest. Losing access to the ability to order the resources I need through the accounts we have with those suppliers would mean that I would likely need to actually start spending my own money independently in order to continue experimenting, and that would hamper me more than if I had to deal with the broom alone.
“Yes, and you reached that point already. If you continue going unchecked, there’s a chance you’ll put the business into a position where the liquid assets at your disposal won’t cover your liabilities within a full period. I would rather not have Mother give you a loan afterwards to pay them off when better management could have prevented it in the first place.”
“…Very well,” I concede. If I really did get into a position where I had to ask Mother for another loan, it was likely to take even longer to get the shop from underneath them and take it for myself. Besides, I would need to revise my experiments regardless so there was no point in arguing for it further.
“Then there’s the matter of the wages you’re paying your two employees—”
Okay, now that one I did have to intervene with. “I am already paying them lower than average due to their services being a part of the Academy’s work program. Hiring someone else would result in a higher cost in the long run.”
“A single one would be fine, but there’s no need for a spare,” he stated. “Because from what I can see you could do with getting rid of one of them and easily make up for one of the larger expenses you have going forward. It was a mistake to hire a second person when you only just started to enter the business.”
“Those two individuals are reliable and allow me time to focus on what I make to sell, which allows us to sell at a low enough price to attract the regulars we do have,” I tell him. “Besides, the Magisters personally requested that I take them on and I don’t wish to needlessly sour the relationship I have with them so far.”
“You mean the one where they exploit you to save on their own costs?” It wasn’t so much a question as an accusation. “They already pay you substantially less as a supplier than what would be demanded for the same elsewhere. Now they are allowed dictate who you hire?”
“I wouldn’t have as much money starting out for the business if not for them,” I argued. “Most small apothecaries don’t have that luxury. And they aren’t exploiting me. They have faith in my talent, otherwise they wouldn’t have entrusted me with the task or vouched I was ready to get my credentials.”
He leaned back in his seat and steepled his fingers as he met my gaze. “Or they assessed that they could get more benefit from your gratitude than letting you learn your lesson from rashly deciding to withdraw after how much money was lost on your tuition.”
“I didn’t need to finish when I could go get my qualifications right away. If anything, I saved us money in the long-run rather than continuing to pay tuition. As far as opportunity costs went, it was the right call. And last I checked both Mother and Father agreed, or else I wouldn’t have the Sylphide in the first place.”
He sighed, as if disappointed. “Your shortsightedness has always been a problem, but do you really think that Mother sent you to the most prestigious academy on the continent just for the sake of your education? Any of the other schools that still had alchemic courses would have sufficed if that was the case. There was a reason for it, one you would have grasped if you didn’t fail to see things from all angles as usual.”
…I hated when he did that. Always acting as though he knew best. That he was a step ahead of me, even in matters that weren’t things he had a say in. “Then please explain it to me, Brother.”
“It was because schools of such nature allow for connections to be formed, a network to be established, and the weight carried by those who can call themselves an alumnus. You were among the next generation of magi and magic-users, yet you didn’t bother to take advantage of that to benefit you in the future before you decided to arbitrarily quit, making it a wasted investment.”
That was something he could only say because he didn’t have to attend and deal with the likes of Vancipe. “Sorry, but I sincerely doubt that friendship was in the cards between me and them.”
“I didn’t say friendship, I said a connection,” he clarified. “Friendship means little in business, only that you can benefit in some way. I’m certain you must have had some opportunity to make yourself useful in a way that would have earned their favor, to be used later. Or at least something that could be exploited, like the magisters have done with you.”
The only opportunity of that nature I could think of would be like making the Amour Draught for Vancipe. Money was little object to him and it was an illegal item, so I could have charged him quite a bit for it in the end. And if I had done so compliantly and appeased him, there was a chance I could’ve appealed to him for a future favor.
But doing so would have disregarded my beliefs. And, while Clarus had no way of knowing that was the depths that doing what he suggested would lead to, I couldn’t help but feel that if he did know he wouldn’t care. Because it would have likely gotten him what he wanted in the end, a net profit at the expense of others.
If anything, that thought only served to reaffirm that I wanted nothing to do with him. Or this family. He was the prime example of how Mother’s teaching led to everything being divided, the seeking of profit over everything else. But I couldn’t break things off because I lacked the means to sustain myself, let alone save Alice.
The shop was the only means I had of potentially doing both right now. And that meant I had to put up with him dressing me down and his criticism, regardless of how much I wanted to say otherwise. So, I sat there obediently and listened as he went on about his perception of my incompetence and naivety.
For the next three hours.