The First Steps – 4.11

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Miss Taun was imposing as she ushered me into the manor and demanded to know where I had been. Her displeasure was understandable given that I did tell her I expected to be back much sooner. My tardiness no doubt made a horrible first-impression to whomever our guests were, and I suspected if she was this upset then Mother would likely be even more so.

“The situation was far worse than we’d expected, necessitating my delay,” I explained. “It would take too long to go into the finer details at the moment, but I assure you if it wasn’t a matter of life and death I would have returned sooner.”

“…I know you wouldn’t lie lightly and you both look tired, so I’ll take you at your word for now.” She huffed before unfolding her arms. “Go leave her in your room and change into the clothes I left on your bed before you head into the Dining Room. That’ll give me time to convince your mother to send you off to bed once the meal is over rather than having you fall asleep in the middle of hosting our guests. Be on your best behavior until then.”

I acknowledged her request with a nod and then made my way to my room. The outfit there was the formal wear of subtle black and gold hues that didn’t stand out. I changed into it once I left Aeria curdled up on her little bed and ventured towards the Dining Room.

Mother had dressed rather immaculately for her guests, foregoing her usual dress for a more intricate one as the long-sleeves ran down her forearms before narrowing into the wedding band around her ring finger. Her shoulders were adorned by a half-cape with gold trimmings that came down to her elbows, buttoned at the collar with a golden necklace that had a diamond gemstone at the center resting squarely against her chest. She even braided her hair to form a natural headband, keeping it prim yet elegant.

Father wore similar colored clothes to compliment her, jeweled cuffs on his overcoat slightly refracting the light. Clarus simply wore the same outfit that I did, adding to the impression of unity among the family. Karolyn, on the other hand, wore a vibrantly bright dress and had her hair freely flowing down like a curtain.

I shouldn’t be surprised. She was the type that wanted to stand out and go against Mother, so it was within her personality to do so. The fact that she was doing it so brazenly meant she felt she was in a position where she couldn’t be reprimanded, likely due to the fact that it was her wedding. Hopefully the ire that it wrought from Mother wouldn’t be projected onto me instead.

Of our guests, the older man was dressed in a formal… bliaud, I believe it was called. It was well-made from wool or fleece, adorned with a cravat and chained clasps kept it closed. The fact that he also sported both a pointed beard and curled moustache, both the same color of blond as his hair that came down to his shoulder, left me to presume he was the head of their family.

The other man looked around Clarus’ age, so I assumed him to be the groom to the wedding. Shorter hair than his father, but no facial hair. In addition to the formal wear he donned, he gave me the impression of being similar to my brother at a glance.

Last was a young woman who seemed to be slightly younger than myself if I were to hazard a guess. Her long, pale blonde hair put into a cascading braid was duller than theirs, and her ashen eyes lacked the green of the other two. The white blouse with a front frill that she wore was somewhat more casual than I’d expected as well, making the silver pendant with a rare gemstone that seemed to change colors with every movement she made seem even more contrasting.

“So good of you to join us at last, Kowler,” Mother said softly from her seat at the head of the table, pulling my attention towards her. “We were expecting you sooner. I trust you have an explanation for your absence?”

I bowed my head and apologized in as formal a manner as I could. “Forgive me. I do not speak lightly when I say that it was a matter of life and death that necessitated my delayed return home. I will be happy to provide a detailed explanation come morning, as the contents of the discussion isn’t suitable for dinner.”

She entertained my words with an unreadable expression before gesturing to our three guests on the left side of the table. “We will address that matter later. For now, introduce yourself to the Drisden Family.”

I did so without question. “My name is Kowler Freslight. I am the youngest son of the family and an Alchemist by trade. I do hope that my tardiness has not imposed upon your visit nor reflected poorly upon our family. Had the circumstances not been so pressing, I would have been here to welcome you alongside the others.”

“So far our impression of your family has been nothing but positive,” said the older man. “As for introductions, I am Reinhold Drisden, the patriarch of House Drisden.”

“And I am Faunel,” said the other man. “I am the firstborn of the family and your sister’s fiancé.”

“He’s also the most wonderful man in the world,” my sister chimed in, naturally seated across the table from her betrothed. “It may have been pure fortune that we met at that social, but now I can’t imagine living without him.”

The saccharine words were meltingly sweet. I might believe them if they weren’t completely foreign coming out of her mouth. The young woman across the table even seemed as dismissive as I was, if more willing to show it.

Then her gaze met mine and her expression turned rather hostile for a flicker, before she closed her eyes. I don’t think that I had done anything to warrant her anger. But as long as she didn’t act on it, I suppose it didn’t matter what her feelings were in the end. “Luella Drisden.”

Either way, once the introductions were out of the way, Mother inclined her hand towards the empty seat on the right side of the table. A silent command for me to take my place between Karolyn and Father, across the table from the Miss Drisden. There was a silver tray with a cloche over it, a spellstone on the tip with red inlays showing the spell keeping the food within it warm was active.

“You’ve grown a lot since the last time we saw each other,” Father noted as I sat down.  “I know you’re quite busy, but it means a lot that you made time to come visit us for your sister’s wedding.”

“I would have come regardless of time or distance for such an occasion,” I stated, purely for appearance’s sake. Not coming when called would have caused more problems. “However, I will be heading back once the ceremony is over. While I have competent help with managing things, so that the apothecary can remain open while I’m absent, neither can use the workshop to restock the supplies.”

“Your sister and father have spoken highly of your talents as an Alchemist,” Faunel said. “By their praise, I would have thought you’d enlisted in the Conclave. I suspect you would do well among their ranks.”

He was speaking of the Royal Alchemist Conclave. It was essentially a collective that worked to better the kingdom and handle regulation when it came to alchemic-use, including myself given that I was a citizen. It doesn’t have nearly a much clout as the others official fields, but it was still a relatively high position for someone of my birth.

“I suspect if I did enter their ranks I would remain as an Initiate for far longer than necessary when my education qualifies me for at least an Apprentice rank,” I answered. Just as the older children of Miss Bancroft were undergoing an apprenticeship within a guild to become eligible to be among their ranks, the process was similar within the Conclave.

The Initiates were just those who were accepted and inexperienced, essentially relegating them to lower work. Only once they had a mentor to work under did they become Apprentices, as a retiring alchemist would severe their contract with one of the limited spirits they possessed under the guild’s care to replace them. Then, after years of working as an apprentice, they could progress to becoming Journeymen.

Naturally, those who possessed sponsors that donated generously or came from established families would be given preferential treatment. But they would still be subservient to the head of the Conclave and lack the freedom to do as they wished. In contrast, the only person I have to answer to right now is Mother.

Besides, half the things I experimented with would have landed me in a cell and stripped me of my credentials at this point.

“Indeed,” Mother said as her finger circled the rim of her glass. “While such a position would foster renown in perhaps a decade or so, exploring the potential of expanding our interest in the apothecary market with his talent would best serve the family’s interest.”

That declaration seemed to peak Mister Drisden’s interest. “Is that so?”

“I’m sure a man of your standing understands how difficult it is to gain a solid foothold in the such a market. It is quite profitable after all, since everyone needs medicine regardless of who they are. So he has taken it upon himself to gain an understanding of it on a smaller scale, before we focus on expanding into it deeper.”

“Illness does have a way of prying open even the tightest of pouches, or so I’ve been told by a Kermisian or two,” he said, raising his glass to Mother. That told me enough about the man himself that I already wanted the wedding to be over and to never see him again.

Regardless, this was all news to me. And, knowing Clarus, he would have mentioned something when he was lecturing me for hours on end. It was another thing I would have to address at a later date. Not even two days home and already it feels like I’m being pulled in a direction I don’t want to be.

I removed the cloche to see Miss Taun had prepared for me what looked to be roast lamb with a healthy amount of seasoning to add to the flavor, steam still rising off it. Handmade Manchet rolls sweetened with cinnamon were stacked along with a side of vegetables that were sprinkled with pepper. Spicy and sweet, a blend meant for formal meals with guests.

I ate in silence as I half-listened to the banter of Mother and her guest, the clicking of cutlery on silverware padding out the moments. They talked about the wedding and some mention of the arrangements being in place despite the time table, with assurances that it would be official despite being a small ceremony. The Drisdens were a family of magi, so it begged the question of why they would be interested in having my sister marry into their family in the first place?

I could see why Mother would be interested. It would open up new avenues and connections simply by associating our name with that of theirs. She was never one to let an opportunity pass by, so she would be all for it. Karolyn going through with the ceremony willingly was another story entirely.

As the wife of the eldest son in a family that followed primogeniture succession, she would be expected to bear him a child. She wasn’t fond of children to begin with and she was rather vain in keep up her appearance. Her tolerating the laborious pains and the sight of her stomach swelling with life was something that I just couldn’t see happening willingly.

Moreover, Karolyn came from a family that had been split off from a magus branch due to no longer producing magic-capable children. For a family of magi to willingly take a bride from such a family would be not only be seen as something of a disgrace, but impractical considering that the number of magi were dwindling as time progressed. So why does she seem so eager to go through with this from where I sit?

It may have just been because I was tired after spending all day helping with treating the children, but I couldn’t come up with a suitable answer by the time dinner was over. Mother gave me the right to head off to sleep with the understanding that I would give the explanation of my absence to Miss Taun beforehand. The fact that she expected it to be a satisfactory one went unsaid due to keeping up appearances, but it was implied by her gaze.

Miss Luella had also asked to take her leave to rest. Though less than a handful of us lived within the manor, the guest rooms were kept orderly for such an occasion. She was shown to what would be her room for the duration of her stay.

As for Father and Clarus, they were to entertain our guests. Father had a rich wine that was suitable for the guests of their caliber and Mister Drisden seemed eager to partake, so I suspected they would be indulging in it for quite a while. The questions I had for him regarding our family and Alice’s relatives would have to wait until another day.

That left Mother and Karolyn, both of whom retreated to her study for a conversation. I suspected it would not be a pleasant discussion, given she asked Miss Taun to bring her an entire teapot Calin Tea as soon as she was able to. Mother only drank a cup of that when she felt agitated and needed something to calm the nerves and soothe the throat, so to speak. An entire teapot meant she was in quite a foul mood…

I’d best avoid them both until it blows over.


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