Difference between revisions of "The Flowers in Boreal Twilight:Volume 1 Chapter 0"

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''Please give us your blessing, Your Holiness.''
 
''Please give us your blessing, Your Holiness.''
  
It was said that the Goddess of Mercy observed all, able to fulfill the wishes of those most in need. But even though Velikaya was part of the Polisian Federation, Lydia was so far from the Samaran homeland that she wasn't sure if such a belief still held true.
+
It was said that the Goddess of Mercy observed all, able to fulfill the wishes of those most in need. But even though both Velikaya and Samara were members of the Polisian Federation, they were so far apart that Lydia wasn't sure if such a belief still held true.
  
 
Her Samaran mother had married a merchant, a normal human of Hyperborean-Polans cultural descent. Her father's business brought them two thousand kilopaces west to Velikaya -- one of the Polisian Federation's city-state principalities -- where they lived twenty years of idyllic, married life.
 
Her Samaran mother had married a merchant, a normal human of Hyperborean-Polans cultural descent. Her father's business brought them two thousand kilopaces west to Velikaya -- one of the Polisian Federation's city-state principalities -- where they lived twenty years of idyllic, married life.
  
Then disaster struck when her father's trading vessel capsized in a storm, taking his life with it. The legal requirement to reimburse the customers' loss bankrupted her family. Their home and savings became forfeit almost overnight, leaving Lydia, her mother, and two siblings homeless -- her youngest sister barely two years of age.
+
Then disaster struck when her father's trading vessel capsized in a storm, taking his life with it. The legal requirement to reimburse the customers' loss bankrupted her family. Their home and savings became forfeit almost overnight, leaving Lydia, her mother, and two siblings homeless -- her youngest sister barely one year of age.
  
 
With the seasons changing and lacking adequate shelter, they all knew that the small Iliana was unlikely to survive the bitter, northern winter. However, that did not mean they could abandon her either. The local priest of the Holy Trinity would not help their kind. Yet a Samaran's conscience determined their spiritual inheritance upon reincarnation, and no soul could ever tolerate an evil as grievous as abandoning her own child.
 
With the seasons changing and lacking adequate shelter, they all knew that the small Iliana was unlikely to survive the bitter, northern winter. However, that did not mean they could abandon her either. The local priest of the Holy Trinity would not help their kind. Yet a Samaran's conscience determined their spiritual inheritance upon reincarnation, and no soul could ever tolerate an evil as grievous as abandoning her own child.
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A renewed breeze blew down the long, winding alleyway. The girl shivered as her eyes reopened to reality. The shadowy corridor ahead was almost empty as the early dusk fell. The taverns would be filled by guests soon. She needed to hurry.
 
A renewed breeze blew down the long, winding alleyway. The girl shivered as her eyes reopened to reality. The shadowy corridor ahead was almost empty as the early dusk fell. The taverns would be filled by guests soon. She needed to hurry.
  
Several copper kopeks per night was unlikely to afford a roof over their heads before the weather dipped below freezing. But the young girl needed some hope to cling onto. Perhaps if they all worked hard, they could also save enough money for a trip back to her maternal grandparents' home village in Samara once spring arrives.
+
Several copper kopeks per night was unlikely to afford a roof over their heads before the weather dipped below freezing. But the young girl needed some hope to cling onto. Perhaps if they all worked hard, they could save enough money for a trip back to her maternal grandparents' home village in Samara once spring arrives.
  
 
Lydia turned into the final corridor between back alleys and the main, bustling street. In her rush, she didn't notice the figure just around the corner before bouncing off. A gentle hand caught her before she fell to the ground, and the girl looked up at the stranger in a daze.
 
Lydia turned into the final corridor between back alleys and the main, bustling street. In her rush, she didn't notice the figure just around the corner before bouncing off. A gentle hand caught her before she fell to the ground, and the girl looked up at the stranger in a daze.
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"I know a great deal about your family," the mysterious woman's smile was sweet and calming. "I know that your father never permitted himself to make a single dishonest deal, and that your mother donated a fifth of the family earnings every year to charity. I know that because your father lost the cargo of a prominent local noble, the Merchant Guild was pressured into blacklisting your family, causing even your parents' longtime friends to keep their distance."
 
"I know a great deal about your family," the mysterious woman's smile was sweet and calming. "I know that your father never permitted himself to make a single dishonest deal, and that your mother donated a fifth of the family earnings every year to charity. I know that because your father lost the cargo of a prominent local noble, the Merchant Guild was pressured into blacklisting your family, causing even your parents' longtime friends to keep their distance."
  
Lydia's eyes teared. Her father had always been gracious to his friends. Yet this was how they repaid him. Only one man bothered to offer a helping hand: he provided the broken shed and meager rations that her family lived on at the moment.
+
Lydia's eyes teared. Her father had always been gracious to his friends. Yet this was how they repaid him. Only one man had bothered to offer a helping hand: he provided the broken shed and meager rations that her family lived on at the moment.
  
 
"T-then, are you here to h-help us?" The teenage girl pleaded. Her father was a merchant after all. He must have had acquaintances in distant lands that she did not know.
 
"T-then, are you here to h-help us?" The teenage girl pleaded. Her father was a merchant after all. He must have had acquaintances in distant lands that she did not know.
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"A-ah... umm..." Lydia was stammering. How was she supposed to say that a random passing woman offered to help her with this?
 
"A-ah... umm..." Lydia was stammering. How was she supposed to say that a random passing woman offered to help her with this?
  
Seeing her misgivings, the young man gave another half-snorted chuckle. "Nevermind... The Gods must be having their fun with me today."
+
Seeing her misgivings, the young man gave another half-snorted chuckle. "Nevermind..." He sighed. "The Gods must be having their fun with me today."
  
 
''So at least he's not Trinitian'', she thought. That was a good start. Relations were much easier to manage when dealing with the local religions and not those who zealously adhered to that 'one true god'.
 
''So at least he's not Trinitian'', she thought. That was a good start. Relations were much easier to manage when dealing with the local religions and not those who zealously adhered to that 'one true god'.
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Her hand rushed behind her neck to search. Sure enough, there was a small bundle she failed to tuck inside.
 
Her hand rushed behind her neck to search. Sure enough, there was a small bundle she failed to tuck inside.
  
The Protectorate of Samara was a region on the eastern side of the Polisia Federation. They joined and paid taxes to the Grand Principality of Ilmen in exchange for collective military defense. However, many of the northern human societies also saw the Samarans' temperate, easygoing nature as weakness and viewed them as second-class citizens.
+
The Protectorate of Samara was a region on the eastern side of the Polisia Federation. They joined and paid taxes to the Grand Principality of Ilmen in exchange for collective military defense. However, many of the northern human societies also saw the Samarans' temperate, peaceful nature as weakness and viewed them as second-class citizens.
  
 
Lydia fell sheepish as Aleksei gave her a long and silent stare. He then picked up his tankard and took a long swig in deep thought.
 
Lydia fell sheepish as Aleksei gave her a long and silent stare. He then picked up his tankard and took a long swig in deep thought.
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He stared back up, his intense-green gaze locking her eyes to him.
 
He stared back up, his intense-green gaze locking her eyes to him.
  
"You see, my great-grandpa is at the end of his days. His health has deteriorated to the point that even the famous Samaran healers can no longer help him. He need help just to sit up on his bed, and barely even has the strength to swallow solid food. It took the previous maid ten hours per day just to feed him two meals worth. He wets and soils the bed through the day and into the night, and throws tantrums to boot."
+
"You see, my great-grandpa is at the end of his days. His health has deteriorated to the point that even the famous Samaran healers can no longer help him. He needs help just to sit up on his bed, and barely even has the strength to swallow solid food. It took the previous maid ten hours per day just to feed him two meals worth. He wets and soils the bed through the day and into the night, and throws tantrums to boot."
  
 
Aleksei sighed. "It's like caring for an infant, except one that weighs eight-and-a-half stones and has to be spoon-fed ten times as much food. Our maids won't do it properly. They grow tired and bored after a few hours, becoming careless and almost choking him one time. Meanwhile most of my family doesn't even care -- they're just waiting for him to leave and pass down his wealth and barony."
 
Aleksei sighed. "It's like caring for an infant, except one that weighs eight-and-a-half stones and has to be spoon-fed ten times as much food. Our maids won't do it properly. They grow tired and bored after a few hours, becoming careless and almost choking him one time. Meanwhile most of my family doesn't even care -- they're just waiting for him to leave and pass down his wealth and barony."
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That was how it began. Lydia's family moved into a cottage on the estate, while she and her mother took twelve-hour shifts between caring for the elderly baron and her younger siblings. Just feeding the man enough gruel took ten hours per day, as he often took minutes just to swallow a bite of food. The large, four-poster bed also didn't help, and standing there for hours with bowl and spoon ready left Lydia's back sore and feet aching every time.
+
That was how it began. Lydia's family moved into a cottage on the estate, while she and her mother took twelve-hour shifts between caring for the elderly baron and her younger siblings. Just feeding the man enough gruel took ten hours per day, as he often took minutes just to swallow a bite of food. The large, four-poster bed didn't help either, and standing there for hours with bowl and spoon ready left Lydia's back sore and feet aching every day.
  
Furthermore, Baron Lisitsyn would foul his bedsheets on average of four times per day, including at least once in the middle of the night. They had to be changed and washed immediately, except switching the sheets of an elderly man who couldn't pull himself up was no easy task. Just as difficult was the task of cleaning him with towels, and Lydia saw more than her fair share of flabby skin on male private parts.
+
Baron Lisitsyn would also foul his bedsheets on average of four times per day, including at least once in the middle of the night. They had to be changed and washed immediately, except switching the sheets of an elderly man who couldn't pull himself up was no easy task. Just as difficult was the task of cleaning him with towels, and Lydia saw more than her fair share of male private parts.
  
 
The slightest mistake or delay could spark his unpredictable tantrums, when he refused all cooperation while cursing his caretakers as 'incompetent imbeciles'. To avoid this, Lydia learned to put on a smile no matter how weary she was and conversed with the baron about his favorite topics in history and philosophy. He even gave her reading assignments that taxed her adolescent vocabulary to its limits.
 
The slightest mistake or delay could spark his unpredictable tantrums, when he refused all cooperation while cursing his caretakers as 'incompetent imbeciles'. To avoid this, Lydia learned to put on a smile no matter how weary she was and conversed with the baron about his favorite topics in history and philosophy. He even gave her reading assignments that taxed her adolescent vocabulary to its limits.
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Lydia couldn't believe what she had just heard. She could feel the blood rushing to her head. Her face promptly began to overheat as thoughts flooded into her foggy, sleep-deprived brain. She remembered how Aleksei's gaze warmed over these past months as he watched her work. How he increasingly offered a considerate hand during his visits. How he began bringing food prepared by the kitchen staff. Or how she caught the two men stealing glances towards her -- as though discussing something in secret -- on many occasions.
 
Lydia couldn't believe what she had just heard. She could feel the blood rushing to her head. Her face promptly began to overheat as thoughts flooded into her foggy, sleep-deprived brain. She remembered how Aleksei's gaze warmed over these past months as he watched her work. How he increasingly offered a considerate hand during his visits. How he began bringing food prepared by the kitchen staff. Or how she caught the two men stealing glances towards her -- as though discussing something in secret -- on many occasions.
  
At first, she thought he simply grew more caring of his great-grandfather as the elder's vitality ebbed away. However in hindsight, that wasn't the only reason. His attention and awareness towards her had rose all along, and she was simply too tired to notice it.
+
At first, she thought he simply grew more caring of his great-grandfather as the elder's vitality ebbed away. However in hindsight, that wasn't the only reason. His attention and awareness towards her had risen all along, and she was simply too tired to notice it.
  
 
"It might seem hasty of me to ask this, and I know you might feel that I'm being ingenuine for my Greatpa's sake," Aleksei continued in earnest. "But I've been seriously considering this for the past three months now, and I believe more surely than ever that you could make me a very happy man, just as I would certainly try to provide for your needs and your happiness."
 
"It might seem hasty of me to ask this, and I know you might feel that I'm being ingenuine for my Greatpa's sake," Aleksei continued in earnest. "But I've been seriously considering this for the past three months now, and I believe more surely than ever that you could make me a very happy man, just as I would certainly try to provide for your needs and your happiness."
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She never did answer him. Her ability to speak had been lost completely in that moment. All she could do was nod, and again, and again...
 
She never did answer him. Her ability to speak had been lost completely in that moment. All she could do was nod, and again, and again...
  
The remainder of the day passed in a blur of frenzied motion. Their engagement lasted merely hours, as Aleksei was keen to fulfill his great-grandfather's dying wish while he still had the chance. The entire Lisitsyn family and their near friends had been summoned for a hastily-prepared wedding at dusk. There, on the sun-drenched, golden shores of Lake Velikaya, they married.
+
The remainder of the day passed in a blur of frenzied motion. Their engagement lasted merely hours, as Aleksei was keen to fulfill his great-grandfather's dying wish while he still had the chance. The entire Lisitsyn family and their near friends had been summoned for a hastily-prepared wedding at dusk. There, on the sun-drenched, golden shores of Lake Velikaya, they married in a private ceremony.
  
 
Lydia could still remember Aleksei's smile as they stood before the Hyperborean priestess, calming her nerves as they exchanged wedding rings from the tips of silver swords. They symbolized his protection and her devotion, sworn vows to one another that would last a lifetime.
 
Lydia could still remember Aleksei's smile as they stood before the Hyperborean priestess, calming her nerves as they exchanged wedding rings from the tips of silver swords. They symbolized his protection and her devotion, sworn vows to one another that would last a lifetime.
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Nine months ago, her family had been torn asunder by an ill wind of fate.
 
Nine months ago, her family had been torn asunder by an ill wind of fate.
  
Now, karma had returned it to her, with a greater warmth and strong sense of security than ever.
+
Now, karma had returned it to her, with a greater warmth and stronger sense of security than ever.
  
  
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Lydia still remembered when Aleksei found his great-grandfather deceased two mornings after their wedding, departing for the afterlife with a peaceful smile. He cried on her shoulders as the man who had loved him even more than his own parents passed away, and in that moment Lydia knew just how much 'family' would mean to the man she married.
 
Lydia still remembered when Aleksei found his great-grandfather deceased two mornings after their wedding, departing for the afterlife with a peaceful smile. He cried on her shoulders as the man who had loved him even more than his own parents passed away, and in that moment Lydia knew just how much 'family' would mean to the man she married.
  
She still reminisced her warm blush as she met Aleksei's gaze on another sunny morning, naked beneath the sheets after she finally gave herself to him. He had waited two long years before she agreed at last, never once pushing her despite his peers' ridicule over their unconsummated marriage.
+
She still reminisced over her warm blush as she met Aleksei's gaze on another sunny morning, naked beneath the sheets after she finally gave herself to him. He had waited two long years before she agreed at last, never once pushing her despite his peers' ridicule over their unconsummated marriage.
  
 
She still recalled her awe as she stood next to Aleksei at the Ilmen Academy's entrance, anticipating years of higher learning that she never dreamed of. Only nobles and wealthy yeomen could normally afford such privileges. It was the chance of a lifetime that she was forever grateful for.
 
She still recalled her awe as she stood next to Aleksei at the Ilmen Academy's entrance, anticipating years of higher learning that she never dreamed of. Only nobles and wealthy yeomen could normally afford such privileges. It was the chance of a lifetime that she was forever grateful for.

Revision as of 19:29, 4 December 2017

Prologue

It was snowing.

The first flurry drifted down beneath a thick blanket of gray monotony. They fluttered through the chilly breeze, descending upon the cramped districts of Velikaya -- a walled trading city just upriver from the North Sea.

One of these flakes tumbled into a quiet, residential neighborhood. Skirting between steep, wooden roofs, it fell into a narrow, cobbled street, and landed upon the open palm of a fourteen year old girl.

She wore a modest, middle-class dress that hugged her slender shoulders and arms, then widened below her narrow waist and reached down to her ankles. Her hair was completely covered, tucked into an oversized, floppy wool hat. Only her small hands, thin neck, and innocent face lay exposed, with delicate features and fair skin that shone like porcelain.

Lydia watched as the beautiful crystal melted against the warmth of her soft palm. Her large, clear-aqua eyes held a bitter, incriminating gaze. Winter was arriving early this year, and with it, hope dimmed for her dispossessed family.

Adjusting the wool hat that hid her snowy hair, Lydia clasped one hand over the other as she made a silent prayer to the Protectress of the Samarans:

Please give us your blessing, Your Holiness.

It was said that the Goddess of Mercy observed all, able to fulfill the wishes of those most in need. But even though both Velikaya and Samara were members of the Polisian Federation, they were so far apart that Lydia wasn't sure if such a belief still held true.

Her Samaran mother had married a merchant, a normal human of Hyperborean-Polans cultural descent. Her father's business brought them two thousand kilopaces west to Velikaya -- one of the Polisian Federation's city-state principalities -- where they lived twenty years of idyllic, married life.

Then disaster struck when her father's trading vessel capsized in a storm, taking his life with it. The legal requirement to reimburse the customers' loss bankrupted her family. Their home and savings became forfeit almost overnight, leaving Lydia, her mother, and two siblings homeless -- her youngest sister barely one year of age.

With the seasons changing and lacking adequate shelter, they all knew that the small Iliana was unlikely to survive the bitter, northern winter. However, that did not mean they could abandon her either. The local priest of the Holy Trinity would not help their kind. Yet a Samaran's conscience determined their spiritual inheritance upon reincarnation, and no soul could ever tolerate an evil as grievous as abandoning her own child.

A renewed breeze blew down the long, winding alleyway. The girl shivered as her eyes reopened to reality. The shadowy corridor ahead was almost empty as the early dusk fell. The taverns would be filled by guests soon. She needed to hurry.

Several copper kopeks per night was unlikely to afford a roof over their heads before the weather dipped below freezing. But the young girl needed some hope to cling onto. Perhaps if they all worked hard, they could save enough money for a trip back to her maternal grandparents' home village in Samara once spring arrives.

Lydia turned into the final corridor between back alleys and the main, bustling street. In her rush, she didn't notice the figure just around the corner before bouncing off. A gentle hand caught her before she fell to the ground, and the girl looked up at the stranger in a daze.

She was an older woman just barely into middle age. Her eyes were kind and her smile serene. Her very countenance seemed to exude the aura of someone wise and pure beyond reproach. Her slender body was clad in flowing, silky white robes -- a fluttery outfit that that should have left her shivering in the chill even with the enchantments that only the magically-gifted Boyar aristocracy could afford. Yet her exposed hand, barely even pink from the cold, carried a rod of willow with leafy sprigs as though it was still spring.

But perhaps most importantly, she walked with her long, silver-white hair in the open -- a Samaran without any fear of unwanted attention.

"There is no rush, Lydia," the woman's soft voice rang pristine. "There will be room for you."

"H-how... how do you know my name?" The girl asked as her elder picked up the fallen hat and waved her hand over it, leaving the brown wool clean as new.

Lydia's eyes grew as the hat covered her white hair once more. Samaran mages -- or mystics, as other Samarans called them -- were rare, less than one in a hundred, whereas they numbered more than one in twenty for normal humans. The ability to craft spells often highlighted aristocratic heritage for humans; but among Samarans it revealed an individual's spiritual enlightenment in the great cycle of rebirth.

"I know a great deal about your family," the mysterious woman's smile was sweet and calming. "I know that your father never permitted himself to make a single dishonest deal, and that your mother donated a fifth of the family earnings every year to charity. I know that because your father lost the cargo of a prominent local noble, the Merchant Guild was pressured into blacklisting your family, causing even your parents' longtime friends to keep their distance."

Lydia's eyes teared. Her father had always been gracious to his friends. Yet this was how they repaid him. Only one man had bothered to offer a helping hand: he provided the broken shed and meager rations that her family lived on at the moment.

"T-then, are you here to h-help us?" The teenage girl pleaded. Her father was a merchant after all. He must have had acquaintances in distant lands that she did not know.

"Yes," the woman beamed. "Though not directly. I could give you food or money, but it would only last a short period before your family returned to destitution. Instead, you must temper yourself for a lasting hope and aegis."

Lydia tilted her head with incomprehension. Was an 'aegis' edible? Could she sleep under it? Hope she already had, or she at least clung onto, but it neither filled her stomach nor brought her warmth.

"Turn right when you reach the main road," the white lady continued. "Enter the third tavern to your left -- The Hydra's Lair. Go upstairs to the second floor and keep walking until you reach the end of the hallway. There, you will find a young man named Aleksei brooding over a drink. Ask him for a job, and he will offer you one with accommodations for your family."

A job?

Lydia had her doubts. She was an adolescent girl with neither training nor trade. What could she perform to keep her entire family safe? Apart from offering her innocence?

She shook her head. A Samaran mystic on the Path to Enlightenment would never deceive me.

"Thank you very much, Milady," Lydia gave an awkward curtsy. "May I ask for your name?"

The woman's smile grew mysterious. "Just a passerby who believes that good karma should be repaid in kind." Her gentle fingers then turned the fourteen year old girl around. "Now, hurry along or you'll miss him."

With glistening eyes and a thankful nod, Lydia ran towards the main street. By the time she reached it and spun around to wave, the narrow alley was empty once again.


...


The main street was busy even this late in the day. Lydia ran down the cobblestone side until she reached the tavern with an eight-headed green hydra sign. Bounding up the stairs, she went straight to the less crowded second floor and scurried down the hallway.

Sure enough, there was a brooding young man at its end, sitting alone at a table with a tankard of liquor in hand.

He was an average-looking fellow, just around twenty years of age. His chin was still smooth, with short, auburn hair and a striking emerald gaze. His shoulders were neither lean nor broad, though they were covered by the finest furs that spoke of wealth. On his finger sat a small emerald ring with glowing green mana laced within -- the sign of a lesser hereditary noble or possibly even a baron's son.

Lydia gulped as she approached him before dipping in another poor imitation of a curtsy.

"Yes?"

His troubled gaze looked irritated at the bother.

"I-I was told y-you were looking to hire a y-young girl," Lydia shakily spoke. "I w-wanted to see if I would qualify."

For a moment, the young man looked stunned with surprise. Then, with a half-snorted, derisive chuckle, he stood up and looked around the tavern's second floor, as though expecting someone to have played a joke on him.

Meanwhile, Lydia was frozen with apprehension, afraid that she had just totally humiliated herself before the wrong person. Even if he was the right individual, what reason has he to help her when her own family's friends rejected them?

Shame grew in her gaze as she wanted to cry 'sorry' and run away. It took all of her will just to stand attentive and wait.

"Sit down, girl," the young man demanded as he returned to the pinewood table. "Who told you this?"

"A-ah... umm..." Lydia was stammering. How was she supposed to say that a random passing woman offered to help her with this?

Seeing her misgivings, the young man gave another half-snorted chuckle. "Nevermind..." He sighed. "The Gods must be having their fun with me today."

So at least he's not Trinitian, she thought. That was a good start. Relations were much easier to manage when dealing with the local religions and not those who zealously adhered to that 'one true god'.

Between the Hyperborean and Polan Gods, the missionaries of the Holy Trinity, the Tanri devotees of the Sky-Father, and the Samarans who reincarnated through the Great Wheel, the Polisia Federation truly was a melting pot of religious belief.

"My name is Aleksei Radomirovich Lisitsyn," the young man leaned back with an amused smile. "What's yours?"

"L-Lydia... Lydia Ilyinichna Shanina."

"You're a Samaran, aren't you?"

Lydia's eyes widened as she checked her hat.

"There's a strand of hair sticking out the back. White as the falling snow outside."

Her hand rushed behind her neck to search. Sure enough, there was a small bundle she failed to tuck inside.

The Protectorate of Samara was a region on the eastern side of the Polisia Federation. They joined and paid taxes to the Grand Principality of Ilmen in exchange for collective military defense. However, many of the northern human societies also saw the Samarans' temperate, peaceful nature as weakness and viewed them as second-class citizens.

Lydia fell sheepish as Aleksei gave her a long and silent stare. He then picked up his tankard and took a long swig in deep thought.

"I do have a position open, but I warn you: it's not easy."

"I'm a hard worker and a good learner, Sir," Lydia pleaded. "My family badly needs money for food and shelter, and I'll work as hard as it takes to earn it."

"I'm sure," Aleksei smiled as he swirled his drink. "Greatpa said that you Samarans value conscience above all, which is why I'm considering it..."

He stared back up, his intense-green gaze locking her eyes to him.

"You see, my great-grandpa is at the end of his days. His health has deteriorated to the point that even the famous Samaran healers can no longer help him. He needs help just to sit up on his bed, and barely even has the strength to swallow solid food. It took the previous maid ten hours per day just to feed him two meals worth. He wets and soils the bed through the day and into the night, and throws tantrums to boot."

Aleksei sighed. "It's like caring for an infant, except one that weighs eight-and-a-half stones and has to be spoon-fed ten times as much food. Our maids won't do it properly. They grow tired and bored after a few hours, becoming careless and almost choking him one time. Meanwhile most of my family doesn't even care -- they're just waiting for him to leave and pass down his wealth and barony."

His gloved fingers curled into a fist atop the table. Pain and disappointment flashed through his emerald eyes at the negligence shown by his own relatives.

"But I'm the eldest great-grandchild whom he cherished and raised. My father has the devotion as well, but he's too often away on business. So it falls on me to see that Greatpa is taken care of properly."

Aleksei then took another swig. There was a shadow of shame even in his own gaze. Lydia could only guess that the task was laborious enough that even he himself could not stand it.

"I'll do it. Sir!" The young girl declared in solemn assurance before he could even ask. "I'll make sure to do a good job at it too!"


...


That was how it began. Lydia's family moved into a cottage on the estate, while she and her mother took twelve-hour shifts between caring for the elderly baron and her younger siblings. Just feeding the man enough gruel took ten hours per day, as he often took minutes just to swallow a bite of food. The large, four-poster bed didn't help either, and standing there for hours with bowl and spoon ready left Lydia's back sore and feet aching every day.

Baron Lisitsyn would also foul his bedsheets on average of four times per day, including at least once in the middle of the night. They had to be changed and washed immediately, except switching the sheets of an elderly man who couldn't pull himself up was no easy task. Just as difficult was the task of cleaning him with towels, and Lydia saw more than her fair share of male private parts.

The slightest mistake or delay could spark his unpredictable tantrums, when he refused all cooperation while cursing his caretakers as 'incompetent imbeciles'. To avoid this, Lydia learned to put on a smile no matter how weary she was and conversed with the baron about his favorite topics in history and philosophy. He even gave her reading assignments that taxed her adolescent vocabulary to its limits.

...And just like that, nine exhausting months passed before Lydia grew worried again.

Despite her best efforts, Baron Lisitsyn's health had steadily deteriorated over time. He was entering his final days when he beckoned for Aleksei in Lydia's presence. Then, with a raspy voice and an unusually clear gaze, he made his last request:

"Alek... if you've made your mind... ask her today. Let this old man... see one last moment of joy."

Having been insomniac for months, Lydia stared back in blank confusion as Aleksei's glistening eyes met her gaze and smiled. Circling around the bed, he stood tall before the petite maid six years his junior and took her small hands into his fingers.

"Lydia, I've never told you these months, but that day when we met at the tavern, I wasn't actually looking for a caretaker maid," he finally admitted with a proud yet gentle grin. "You see... Greatpa had one last wish before he left the world, and that was to see me marry..."

You're joking with me... The young girl's lips hung open.

"--Father had me meet with many candidates. However not a single one of them interested me. I wanted a wife who was conscientious, diligent, and intelligent as well, but I also wanted to do one last thing to make Greatpa happy. I thought I'd try you, to see how far you'd get. I never expected that you'd prove to be all of these in the past nine months."

This HAS to be a joke!

Lydia couldn't believe what she had just heard. She could feel the blood rushing to her head. Her face promptly began to overheat as thoughts flooded into her foggy, sleep-deprived brain. She remembered how Aleksei's gaze warmed over these past months as he watched her work. How he increasingly offered a considerate hand during his visits. How he began bringing food prepared by the kitchen staff. Or how she caught the two men stealing glances towards her -- as though discussing something in secret -- on many occasions.

At first, she thought he simply grew more caring of his great-grandfather as the elder's vitality ebbed away. However in hindsight, that wasn't the only reason. His attention and awareness towards her had risen all along, and she was simply too tired to notice it.

"It might seem hasty of me to ask this, and I know you might feel that I'm being ingenuine for my Greatpa's sake," Aleksei continued in earnest. "But I've been seriously considering this for the past three months now, and I believe more surely than ever that you could make me a very happy man, just as I would certainly try to provide for your needs and your happiness."

"Lydia," Aleksei knelt down on one leg before her wide skirt. He paused and looked into her with his deep, emerald gaze that held nothing back.

"Would you marry me?"

For a moment Lydia swayed on her weak knees. She thought she was going to faint.

"I-I-I'm only f-fourteen," she barely whispered.

Samarans reached adulthood at age sixteen just like ordinary humans, but they aged slowly after that and could easily live up to two hundred years. Meanwhile, human mages like Aleksei could reach just a few decades short of that. They almost never married before reaching their twenties.

"You'll be fifteen in three weeks' time," his kind expression formed a gentle smile. "But I can also wait, until you're comfortable enough to offer me your love."

It took her a second to realize exactly what he meant, and her entire face burned scarlet in a flash.

She never did answer him. Her ability to speak had been lost completely in that moment. All she could do was nod, and again, and again...

The remainder of the day passed in a blur of frenzied motion. Their engagement lasted merely hours, as Aleksei was keen to fulfill his great-grandfather's dying wish while he still had the chance. The entire Lisitsyn family and their near friends had been summoned for a hastily-prepared wedding at dusk. There, on the sun-drenched, golden shores of Lake Velikaya, they married in a private ceremony.

Lydia could still remember Aleksei's smile as they stood before the Hyperborean priestess, calming her nerves as they exchanged wedding rings from the tips of silver swords. They symbolized his protection and her devotion, sworn vows to one another that would last a lifetime.

They danced and drank and sang to their heart's content after that. The merriment enraptured Lydia with joy even though she could never quite ignore the acerbic whispers of a few other aristocrats. She only noticed her exhausted nerves when Aleksei lifted her between his arms and carried her back inside. But rather than making any advances, he remained true to his promise and only huddled alongside her to show and tell the chronicle of their family history.

Lydia had her suspicions before, but she never truly realized it until that moment -- Aleksei was in the direct line of primogeniture succession to the barony. It was only later that night, when she laid awake in his bed, wondering if she was dreaming, that Lydia finally realized the meaning of those words from the mysterious Samaran mystic months ago.

'Temper myself for a lasting hope and aegis,' the maiden bride smiled to herself in the darkness.

Nine months ago, her family had been torn asunder by an ill wind of fate.

Now, karma had returned it to her, with a greater warmth and stronger sense of security than ever.


------ * * * ------


Five tender, joyous years passed by as their marriage lasted and love grew...

Lydia still remembered when Aleksei found his great-grandfather deceased two mornings after their wedding, departing for the afterlife with a peaceful smile. He cried on her shoulders as the man who had loved him even more than his own parents passed away, and in that moment Lydia knew just how much 'family' would mean to the man she married.

She still reminisced over her warm blush as she met Aleksei's gaze on another sunny morning, naked beneath the sheets after she finally gave herself to him. He had waited two long years before she agreed at last, never once pushing her despite his peers' ridicule over their unconsummated marriage.

She still recalled her awe as she stood next to Aleksei at the Ilmen Academy's entrance, anticipating years of higher learning that she never dreamed of. Only nobles and wealthy yeomen could normally afford such privileges. It was the chance of a lifetime that she was forever grateful for.

She still relived that moment when she waved goodbye at Aleksei with glistening eyes, after sharing one last sweet kiss before he mounted to ride off. He looked quite handsome in the polished steel of a demi-lancer lieutenant, despite leaving his best uniform behind and promising her that he would return to wear it for the victory parade.

Then, fate struck for a second time.

On a snowy morning, Lydia Lisitsyna stood just outside the entrance to the family estate. She had been waiting every morning for the mail to arrive before breakfast, for some news of what had happened to her husband at the front.

The air was well below freezing today. Her teeth were chattering as her fingers shakily opened the paper scroll from the local Farspeak messaging office. Her breathes soon hastened between exhaled puffs of steam. Her eyes began to tremble as they read through the contents of the news:

"...We regret to inform you that Aleksei Lisitsyn, Dmitriy Lisitsyn, and Mikhail Lisitsyn have died heroically in defense of the realm at the Battle of Terek. Due to the total destruction of the army at the hands of the barbarous invaders, no body or personal effects could be recovered..."

Her life with Aleksei passed before her eyes in flashing images, not only the past five years but all the joys that were still to come: their proud, smiling hugs at graduation, their celebratory kiss as he received his first architectural project, their sense of accomplishment as he unveiled its finished construction, their mirth as she cradled their first child...

All of them shattered at once into a million shards of light. Forever gone. Forever lost.

"Milady?" The doorway pushed open as her lady's maid stepped through. "His Lordship asked for you to..."

Lydia never even heard her maid, whom -- as she was later told -- barely caught her in time as she cried out and collapsed into a hysterical fit of tears.

Back before the war, she and Aleksei had agreed that they were still too young to contemplate a child. They wanted a dozen years to themselves while he climbed towards his dream. Once he established his career as an architect with her at his side, he would have the time to be an attentive father from day one.

But now, she would never have the chance to bear his children, to leave a legacy of the loving family that they could have shared.



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