The Flowers in Boreal Twilight:Volume 1 Chapter 0
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 thirteen 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 skin so fair that they shone like flawless porcelain.
Lydia watched as the beautiful crystal melted against the warmth of her soft palm. Her large, cyan 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 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.
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 her parents lived twenty years of joyful, 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.
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 also 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 them. 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. Furthermore, 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 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."
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 thirteen 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 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 ether 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.
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 humiliated herself before the completely wrong person.
"Sit down, girl," the young man requested 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?
The young man gave another half-snorted chuckle. "Nevermind... 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 that didn't zealously adhere to the '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, passive 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. "Grandpa 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 need help just to sit up on his bed, and barely even has the strength to swallow solids. It took the previous maid ten hours per day just to feed him two meals worth of food. 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. The maids won't do it seriously. They grow tired and bored after a few hours, becoming careless and even 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 Grandpa is taken care of properly."
Aleksei then took another swig. There was even a shadow of shame 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 as well."
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 and later twelve hours per day, as he often took minutes just to swallow a bite of food. It left Lydia's back sore and her feet aching every time. Meanwhile his fouled bedsheets had to be changed and cleaned four times per day, including at least once in the middle of the night.
The slightest mistake or delay in any of these could spark his unpredictable tantrums. All the while she had to put on a smile and converse with the elder about his favorite topics in philosophy and history. Lydia even received 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, 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 seven years his junior and took her small hand 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 prideful yet gentle grin. "You see... great-grandpa 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, but not a single one of them interested me. I wanted a wife who was responsible, tenacious, and intelligent as well -- and you've proven 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 as he knelt down before her wide skirt. Her face promptly began to overheat as thoughts flooded into her exhausted and foggy brain.
"Lydia," Aleksei looked up at her through his deep, emerald gaze. "Would you marry me?"
For a moment Lydia swayed on weak knees. She thought she was going to faint.
"I-I-I'm only t-thirteen," 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 fourteen in three weeks' time," his head tilted with a cheery 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. 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 still-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 than ever.
------ * * * ------
Their marriage lasted five tender, joyous years, before fate turned her life upside down once more.
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 parchment scroll from the local message 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..."
"Milady?" The doorway pushed open as her lady's maid stepped through. "His Lordship asked for you to..."
But 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. 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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