The Pinnacle of Power

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The Little Lady

“Straighten your back. A little more . . . more . . . Just like that. Yes, yes. Well done, Kériel, child. Well done.”

There was no warmth in Mistress Styrr’s voice, though taking her demanding ways into account, her words were great praise all the same. Kériel knew her governess well enough to know that. Móriel Styrr had been her wet nurse when she was a toddler hence she knew the gaunt, stern woman better than her own mother.

They were in one of the largest of the many rooms filling the Manse’s upper story, a bedroom conditioned as a studio for the homeschooling of Jeormon Mattis’ four daughters. Kériel and Móriel had spent all morning long in another tedious lesson in manners to prepare Kériel for the great feast to celebrate Grandpa Jeorson’s seventieth Name Day this evening.

This time the responsibility of planning and organizing the feast had fallen squarely on Father’s shoulders. And for some reason, he was grumpier and very jumpy, every time he had to do something special for Grandpa Jors.

Today wouldn’t be the exception, Kériel figured. For Grandpa’s Name Day celebration was not the only thing that had put Father on edge. She’d heard that the Heads of all twelve great Houses were invited to the feast and that was very important for everyone dwelling or serving at Jeormon Mattis’ Manse, it appeared.

She had no idea of what it meant to be the Head of a House but if every Head was as rich and famous as Grandpa Jors—or even Father—then all of the guests must be very important folk indeed. And this evening was also to be the first time she’d be formally introduced to all those prominent grownups.

Móriel had told her that she’d have to be as humble and meek with the guests as all of the Manse’s servants behaved before Father, Mother, Kériel and her three sisters. That would be no problem, though. As the youngest member of House Mattis Kériel was always humble, meek and obedient with Mother, Father and her sisters, whether she liked it or no. Elsewise, Kay and Zadie made all but certain to remind their little sister of her rightful place in the House.

So now she stood in front of a large mirror, getting her instructions from Móriel, who remained seated on a wooden chair standing to the left of the mirror. If her protégé failed to do as she was told to her entire satisfaction, Mistress Styrr would make absolutely certain that Kériel repeat and watch her every move and gesture to no end.

“Let us see another curtsy now.” Her governess resumed her instruction, a deep frown etched on Móriel’s face as she watched the look of disappointment plastered on her young ward’s face, the minute she heard the words.

“Do I really have to keep doing that?” protested Kériel, in a shrill, little voice that she immediately wished wouldn’t sound so whiny to her ears. “I don’t see people bowing and curtsying all the time on TV.”

The disapproving look on Mistress Styrr’s visage deepened. “You’re not some fictional technovisor character, child, much less are you part of the rabble! You are a Mattis. You belong to one of the most prominent, proudest and wealthiest families in the world. Not to mention that Mattis is one of the twelve original Houses in the history of the Hall of the Selected. And what is it that all members of the great and small Houses in the service of the Hall must do?”

“We uphold tradition,” muttered Kériel, in semiautomatic singsong, unable to understand her family’s traditions more this time than in any of the countless previous occasions that Móriel had made her utter those very words.

“That is correct, dear.” If her governess noticed the unmistakable lack of enthusiasm dripping from her protégé’s voice, she didn’t show it. “So let us see another curtsy. And be quick about it too, child. I still have to see about instructing your sister.”

Kériel would turn nine seven weeks from now, which meant she was not too prominent at all . . . assuming she understood the meaning of that fancy word her tutor tossed her way, every time she spoke of House Mattis, that famous hall of the Selected, or both.

For starters, Kériel had never set foot on that fabled hall that Grandpa Jors was said to visit often. And since she was the youngest of Jeormon Mattis’ four girls, she wasn’t even significant enough in the midst of her own House, let alone amidst all other Houses of the Selected.

So why must I learn all these stupid things?

Even Mistress Styrr she’d had to share with her sister Zadrinne all her life. And that was something she definitely couldn’t understand for Alsbeth and Cámiel had tutors of their own.

Kériel also had to share Mother and Father with her three sisters, of course. But based on the way that her parents treated her, oft times it felt as if her real progenitors were big sister Allie and Móriel. Besides, since Grandpa Jors’ Name Day was so close to her own, nobody seemed to remember Kériel’s anniversary at home, save for Alsbeth and Mistress Styrr, precisely.

Don’t worry, said the little part of her Being that still clung to hope. Allie always remembers your Name Day.

Indeed. Big sister would never forget her Name Day. Alas Alsbeth was away now, studying at the Academy, thus there was no way of knowing if she’d contact her little sister to congratulate her on her Name Day this year.

Kériel had heard that students were pushed hard at the Farm and that their spare time was scarce. Still, Allie had promised that she’d call later today to congratulate Grandpa. And she’d never forget to do the same for her little sister.

Fervently wishing to hear from Alsbeth soon she pursed her lips, grabbed the edge of the short skirt on her legs with chubby thumbs and forefingers, and bent her knees ever so slightly.

“No, no, no.” Móriel pursed her lips more pronouncedly than Kériel herself had just done. “You can do much better than that, child.”

Her governess leaned forward, placed a hand under her sharp chin and squinted hard in her ward’s direction. “Must be your attire. Hmm . . . yes, I’m certain you’ll do much better once you’re properly dressed for the feast. Now, let us see another curtsy . . . ”

Kériel did as her governess had bid her.

“There, that was much better now,” Mistress Styrr approved, though you’d never know it based on the frown that was still etched on her face. “Yes, it’s all because of that awful skirt you have on, child. But since you’ll do your very best to look presentable tonight that shall take care of the problem.

“Now, take your dress and place it in front of your body. Let us see how you look when dressed like a proper little lady.”

Why must I keep doing all of this, when nobody will notice me at the feast tonight?

Kériel spared a glance at the evening dress hanging from a hanger standing on the mirror’s right upper corner, at the opposite side of Móriel’s seat. The royal blue gown was very pretty indeed, what with its long skirts, trimmed with white lace around the collar and on the fringes of sleeves and skirts alike.

Well, maybe Grandpa Jors will ask me for a hug and a kiss . . . as long as he remembers that I’m there.

Not that Mistress Styrr would share her concerns, though.

Móriel’s bony right hand pointed straight at the evening dress, demanding that Kériel to do as she’d been told. So she stood on the tips of her toes, stretched out her tiny arms as far as they could go and ten small fingers reached up for the gown.

“Careful now,” Móriel warned. “I do not want to see a single wrinkle on that beautiful dress, you hear?”

Kériel let out a little groan, took the dress firmly in her hands and placed it before her body very gently.

“Good.” Mistress Styrr gave a sharp nod of approval. “Now, let us see another curtsy . . . slowly and very carefully, if you will. I don’t want you sweeping the floor with that dress either, dear.”

Again, Kériel did her tutor’s bidding. She held on to the evening dress with both hands and pressed it firmly against her shoulders . . . slowly and very carefully.

The dress had a nice scent to it, as pleasant as only silk can smell when it’s brand-new, she supposed. It was also soft and smooth to the touch, as much as anything her fingers had felt in her short life. The little gown was beautiful indeed.

She would have loved it, no doubt . . . if she were as interested in fashion and such as her sisters, instead of trying to sate the curiosity that the commoners stirred in her; that which Father, Mother, Móriel, Grandpa Jors and just about everyone else around her, would call “the useless lives of the sheeple.”

Kériel was a healthy girl, with round cheeks, thick hips and long legs. She might be just a tad chubby for her age, however . . . or at least she wasn’t as slender as Kay and Zadie, based on what she could still remember of her two middle sisters when they were eight.

As a Child of the Selected she didn’t know many other girls her age, though she did know that she was taller than your average girl of eight or nine. She was athletic too, agile, fast and even graceful for her size.

So she kept the evening gown pressed firmly across her shoulders and bent her knees slightly, making all but certain that the skirts did not even graze the polished hardwood under her feet.

“Much better.” This time her governess’ pale, thin lips curved in a nearly imperceptible manner, giving her the faintest of smiles. “Yes, that dress might just help us make a proper little lady out of you yet.”

I hope it’s enough for Father and Mother to notice me, Kériel thought, with the slightest glimmer of hope.

Kay and Zadie always behaved like “proper little ladies” and yet Father and Mother barely paid them a little more mind than they did their youngest daughter. Allie was the one who kept grabbing all of the attention . . . from Father, at least.

Alsbeth was the oldest amongst the four sisters, though. And whilst Grandpa Jors was far more demanding of his firstborn than Father had ever been of Kériel or any of her sisters, he was never far from Grandpa’s mind, precisely because Father was Jeorson Mattis’ firstborn and heir.

It was funny that Alsbeth would keep grabbing all of the attention when she was the one who needed it the least. Allie was strong, always making her own decisions and doing as she pleased, at least to the eyes of her little sister.

Kériel had always looked up to big sister. She could only wish to be as independent as Allie, as opposed to worrying about the way that the rest of the family would treat her, or with the meaningless lives of the commoners, or with the mysterious ways of that famous hall of the Selected, for that matter. She couldn’t help herself, though, for she was much too curious for her own good.

In that sense, I guess it’s a good thing nobody cares that much about me or what I do . . .

Except for Móriel, of course.

“Stop pouting, child.” Her governess continued with her instruction. “A true lady always lights up the room with a beautiful smile and a–Careful with that dress, now. Don’t drag it across the floor like that, for pity’s sake!”

Kériel’s eyes followed her tutor’s forefinger, immediately realizing that she’d lowered her hands just a bit. And now the pristine edge of her evening gown was brushing the wooden floor under her feet.

“Sorry,” said a blushing Kériel sheepishly, yanking the dress up from the floor as she spoke . . .

The loudspeakers of the cyberdesk rising at the far end of the studio gave a shrill wail, prompting her to forget all about the stupid little dress at once. Only one person could require a holoconference on that desk and she knew exactly who it was.

“Kériel!” yelped a horrified Móriel, her eyes bulging as she realized that her protégé was dragging the evening dress across the room, Kériel saw from the corner of her eye.

She picked up the gown and went across the room at full speed till she reached the mahogany table where the cybernetic drive that she used every day for her studies under Mistress Styrr’s watchful eye, had been installed.

She was not yet finished placing the dress on the back of the brown leather chair standing behind the desk, when she was already activating the cyberdrive. Instantly the blurry image of a girl of fourteen who looked a lot like her—except that the girl on the hologram was much thinner, her hair a tad lighter and reddish, and her eyes grey-green as opposed to the classic deep blue orbs of the Mattis—appeared before the cyberdesk’s flat plasma screen.

“Allie!” Kériel let out an excited little shriek, a wide grin splitting her lips as she set her small frame on the chair. “I thought you were in class.”

“Hi, Kery!” The smile on Alsbeth’s hologram was as wide as the grin on her little sister’s face. “I’m at the Academy, yes, but I’m in my room. I have a break between classes, and since Kay and I just got permission to call Grandpa Jors tonight, I decided to test the transmission channel. How are you, little sis?”

As Alsbeth replied to her sister, Kériel heard Móriel stir behind her back. She turned to spare a fleeting glance at her governess, who’d left her seat and was now approaching the cyberdesk with the steady, small, delicate steps of the proper lady that she was determined to make out of her ward.

When she reached her destination the gaunt, stern woman stood behind her protégé’s seat, Kériel saw. And there Mistress Styrr remained, stiff as a pole, her lips turned into a flat line as she listened in on the two sisters’ holoconference.

“Does this mean you’ll call on my Name Day too?” Kériel turned her attention back to big sister, thrilled to see Allie’s hologram nod at once.

“Hey, by the way, why does everybody call the Academy the Farm?” she inquired, with a wondering look plastered on her juvenile features. Since she would be attending the so-called Mistagent Academy in little over four years, she wanted to know what she would be taught at the place. “I don’t get it. Are they teaching you to milk cowgoats or something?”

Allie gave a loud chortle and shook her head. “No, not exactly!” Her grey-green eyes flashed in Móriel’s direction. “I believe you can explain this much better than me, Mistress Styrr.”

“Well, let’s see now . . . ” Móriel cleared her throat and closed her eyes for an instant, as Kériel turned in her direction with an expectant look on her big blue eyes. “You remember your farming lessons, child, yes?”

“Sure!” Kériel remembered her lessons in farming all too well. “Animals are raised in farms to produce meat, milk, eggs, wool, leather . . . and stuff, so we have food to eat and clothes to wear and such.”

Mistress Styrr gave her the slightest of nods. “That is correct, child. And the Academy is commonly referred to as the Farm, because that’s the place where we learn to . . . Well, that’s where we learn how to deal with the animals.”

“Really?” Kériel turned to ask Allie’s hologram at once. “Is that what you’re learning at . . . the Farm? Solid!”

Alsbeth gave another chuckle. “You’ll see all about that once you come here, Kery. But that’s still a long way off. Listen, I’d love to keep chatting with you but I’ve got to get ready for my next class so that Kay and I can call to congratulate Grandpa Jors tonight.

“Please do as Mistress Styrr says. Behave yourself tonight and don’t do anything to make Mother or Father angry during the feast, aright?”

“Yeah, sure,” promised Kériel, before adding quickly, “I’ll behave myself I mean, not that I’ll make Mother or Father angry.”

“Take care, little sis.” Allie sent her one last smile before nodding slightly in Móriel’s direction. “Mistress Styrr.”

“You have yourself a good day now, Alsbeth,” said Móriel, immediately before Alsbeth’s hologram vanished.

She turned her full attention on her ward next. “Now, pick up your dress, take it back to your room and take a shower, dear. I still must see that your sister’s ready for the feast and time’s growing short. I’ll be in your room in an hour to do your hair.”

“Yes, Mistress Styrr.” Kériel was still smiling from ear to ear thanks to her brief holoconference with big sister. Chatting with Allie always lifted her spirits and made her feel like a true person, a small one perhaps, but a human being nonetheless.

Móriel led her to the studio’s door and pressed on the switch so her ward could leave the room. For her part, Kériel picked up the dress with the utmost care and ran straight into Zadie as her sister was entering the room, ready to take a lesson in manners . . . one that was sorely needed, it would seem.

“Hey!” growled Zadrinne in her sister’s direction, as Kériel was about to run smack dab into her. “Watch it, will you?”

“Me?” She sent a flaring glare at her obnoxious sister, unwilling to move for a millimeter. “It’s you that should watch where you’re going, stupid.”

“What did you just call me?” Zadie whined at once, taking a threatening step forward as she spoke. Apparently she was more than willing to push her little sister out of the way, if need be.

Kériel stood her ground.

Zadrinne may have just turned twelve a couple of months ago, but Kériel was almost as tall as her already. Furthermore, the fact that she was the smallest member of House Mattis did not mean she was the easiest to scare, too. In truth, there was nothing she would like better at this moment than to punch her stupid sister right on the mouth.

“I called you stupid,” she insisted, still drilling Zadrinne’s face with an icy blue glare as her hands curled into tight fists. “What, are you deaf too?”

“Have you already forgotten the promise you made to Alsbeth, Kériel, child?” Móriel put in behind her back. “You told your sister you would behave yourself, remember? And you, Zadrinne, in here now! You still have to learn how to seat at the table like a proper lady, and we haven’t got all day.”

“I’ll get you for this later,” whispered Zadie in her sister’s ear between clenched jaws, when Kériel finally stepped aside to let her into the studio.

Kériel pursed her lips, gave a shrug and went on her way, her hasty strides as she strode across the hall the perfect reflection of the anger still burning hot inside. She forgot all about Móriel’s last words but she was mindful enough to keep the stupid, little evening dress hanging high above her head, so as not to ruin it.

Her bedroom stood at the end of the hall, three rooms away from the studio—her sister’s bedrooms. Still, taking into account the Manse’s sheer size that was a good forty to fifty meters that she had to cover . . . with that stupid gown that went so well with the color her eyes dangling above her head.

Once inside her room, she placed the dress carefully on her bed and walked straight for the saniroom, where she took off her clothes and slipped into the shower. She was certainly not looking forward to tonight’s feast, though the idea of making Father or Mother angry at her was far worse. Especially when this evening would be one of the few times that her parents’ attention would be fixed on their youngest . . . Or so she would like to believe, at any rate.

So she took a hasty shower and made certain to dress up quickly, ready for the moment that Móriel would come into her bedroom to do her hair. And as promised, her governess was in her room exactly sixty minutes later.

Mistress Styrr told her to sit on a chair rising in front of a dressing table finished with a mirror; a piece of furniture that was too high and too wide for a girl of eight. Yet everything was huge in Jeormon Mattis’ Manse, and Kériel’s quarters were certainly not the exception.

A beautiful bedroom suite carved in mahogany coated in white rested in the heart of the room. A wide, rectangular window made of transparent spathaka let the sun kiss the bedroom every morning, while also offering a magnificent view of the green gardens that were the Manse’s backyard.

Móriel walked straight to the dressing table and opened the first drawer to produce a comb and a hairbrush before moving back to stand behind her ward, as stiff as a mannequin.

Aaagh!” shrieked Kériel, as the comb in Móriel’s hands struggled with the many knots it found on its target’s long, pitch-black mane.

“Apologies, dear,” said Mistress Styrr, immediately before justifying herself the way she did every time she made a mistake in her duties. “You should take much better care of your hair, though. It’s quite a mess!”

As if on cue, the comb gave Kériel’s hair another painful yank. This time, instead of screaming in protest, she bit her tongue to ignore the pain as she looked outside the window standing behind the mirror. From her seat she had an excellent view of the large number of servants sworn to Mattis that were making the preparations for the upcoming feast in the great gardens.

Men and women dressed in impeccable white jerseys and black trousers came and went to and fro, with big, round, black platters in their arms filled with fine silverware, crystal cups and glasses that they placed on a wide, round table standing in the back of the gardens.

The fancy silverware sent blinding ripples under the scarlet light of dusk coming through the thick canopy of towering trees rising behind the gardens. Other servants covered tables spread all over the place with large tablecloths, as white as the jerseys on their upper bodies. Soon the gardens were covered in pristine white circles that looked like giant mushrooms sprouting from a well-tended lawn.

More servants dressed in common attire hung from metal, flying saucers, installing and testing the antigravity lightrods that would provide illumination for the feast, all under the cover of a huge, cream-colored . . . blanket.

“What’s the name of that . . . blanket covering the gardens?” Kériel wished to know.

“It’s called a canvas, child.” Mistress Styrr’s eyes never looked away from her ward’s head as she spoke. “It’ll help keep the guests safe and dry during the feast, in case it rains.”

Kériel lifted her gaze to look at the pink, red, orange hues rising behind the shadowy treetops, failing to find a single leaden cloud in the sky.

Jeormon Mattis’ Manse stood in the suburbs of Niemadar, where it never rained in early spring, not in Niemadar, Lúnembril, Sidussane, Govissane or any other city across Central Zevantika, for that matter. She might not have known that the giant blanket shrouding the gardens was called a canvas, but her hometown’s weather she knew like the back of her hand—

Aaargh!” she cried out again, as the comb pulled her hair brusquely one more time. Móriel’s got hands of stone! “Are we almost done, Mistress Styrr?”

“Yes,” said Móriel, slowly but proudly. “We just have to brush your hair and place some very nice blue ribbons on it that will make it look truly charming, dear.”

Good thing the brush won’t feel as if it wants to tear my hair out! Kériel thought, her gaze still fixed on the window and beyond.

She’d always loved beholding the gardens while doing her homework or at times like these, when Móriel did her hair for some important event. Only this time she would have preferred it if her window looked out at the Manse’s front yard instead.

“Mistress Styrr,” she inquired, hopefully. “Can we go watch the sliders and aerolimos land when we’re done with my hair?”

“I don’t see why not.” Her governess’ voice was flat as always as she placed the hairbrush on the dressing table to pick up four small, turquoise blue ribbons, Kériel saw through the mirror. “That way you can help greet the guests as they come in. But for that, you’ll have to smile and curtsy at every single one of them.”

The parking area was wider than the gardens and almost as beautiful besides, thanks to the great, circular marble fountain standing tall between the Manse’s main gate and the door to the main house. The fountain was crowned with the statues of a couple of fierce pantheguars sculpted face to face, as if the two wild, large felines were about to lunge at each other, both forged in bright, silvery spathaka.

Kériel was dying to go watch the fancy aerolimos and the sleek sportsliders as they touched down on the wide parking lot shaped like a crescent moon on the front yard. She wasn’t so sure that she wanted to smile and curtsy at each and every single one of the guests as they arrived, however.

“There we go,” Móriel announced when she was done placing the ribbons around Kériel’s head, two above each of her ears. “Now we can say that you look like a proper little lady,” said Mistress Styrr, a bony finger pointing straight at the mirror as she spoke.

Kériel took a good look at herself in the mirror, forced to admit that she liked what she saw.

Mistress Styrr might have had hands of stone, but she’d turned her ward’s wild mane into four curls of thick hair so black that it sent blue ripples under the white glow spewed by the lamp hanging from the ceiling.

Will Father and Mother tell me if I look pretty to them?

They hardly took notice of her.

Mother and Father were so caught up in their roles as gracious hosts that they barely paid attention to the two daughters they had at home this evening.

Kériel realized this as soon as Móriel led her and Zadrinne towards the high table rising in the heart of the gardens, in the midst of all other tables. To add insult to injury, the attire on the body of every woman present at the feast was as stunning as Kériel’s own dress. Even Zadie looked lovely tonight.

The fancy, colorful gowns displayed by the female guests were a sharp contrast with the sober black suits donned by the men standing still or pacing around the large tent that the gardens had become this evening. They watched every guest as if they feared that someone would pop from right out of the blue to steal their charges away.

Kériel was acquainted with the word bodyguard. She always had at least a couple of bodyguards watching her closely on the few occasions she was allowed to leave the Manse to go shopping or to have lunch with Mother and her sisters, for instance.

There were also plenty of guards watching the property from the outside, twenty-four-seven, all year round. Tonight marked the first time she’d seen some of the guards inside the Manse though, so close to the Mattis family and their guests alike.

These folk must be as important as I thought, she reflected, pleased to know that she was finally getting a much better grasp on all this selected business that was so important in the life of every member of House Mattis.

As they waited to be assigned to their respective places, the guests killed off time before dinner standing around the tables, engaged in casual conversation or being introduced amongst themselves. And Kériel was not the exception. By the time Father finally ordered for dinner to be served, his daughter’s hand was drenched in sweat.

That was Móriel’s doing though, for she kept pulling Kériel this way and that to introduce the youngest member of the host family to as many guests as she could. She greeted everyone with charming smiles and perfect curtsies, worthy of a proper little lady—at least in accordance to Mistress Styrr’s words— wondering what was so great about being so wealthy, since she could never do as she pleased.

She spared a glance at her surroundings and realized that Mother was engaged in cordial conversation with other ladies her age. For his part, Father kept coming and going, barking orders at every servant he found on his wake to make certain that everything was in order.

Seems to me like they can’t do as they please either. Regardless of how famous or rich we might be.

Móriel also introduced Zadie to the guests and Kériel’s sister gave them charming smiles and curtsies worthy of a lady too. Yet deep down, Zadrinne was as bored and annoyed as her little sister, Kériel knew.

No, this is definitely no fun; no matter how much Unicoin you might have in the bank.

For as irrelevant and ordinary as they might be, the commoners did know how to have a good time then. Kériel had learned about the lives and the ways of the common people by watching all those TV shows that Móriel despised.

She knew the commons went to the beach, to ski on the snow or to some amusement park in their holidays. Even on the weekend the common people would go to a concert, to the holocinema, to some sporting event, or something of the kind.

She never did any of those things.

When she asked Father and Mother why they never took her to the beach, to ski on the snow, or why she couldn’t even go out to the gardens to jump around and play in the rain in her summer break, they told her she wouldn’t understand the way things truly worked till she were much older.

Well, based on what she was seeing on all those fancy grownups sauntering across the gardens all night long, they didn’t seem to be having much fun at all themselves. And they certainly were much older than her, too.

All they ever did was talk about politics and business and other topics related to their all-important duties and obligations. And tonight was not the exception.

“Tell me, son,” Grandpa Jors asked Father during dinner, “how’s our robotics project coming along?”

“It’s coming along, slowly but surely,” said Father, between bites. “We’ve been running some tests lately. And based on the results we’ve obtained thus far, I’d daresay we’re getting closer to the point where we’ll be able to replace human workers with bots at the lowest industrial production levels.

“We’re still far from perfecting the bots to the point that they’ll be able to conduct more complex tasks, though.”

“Doesn’t matter,” approved Grandpa, sticking his knife and fork on a healthy portion of his juicy prime cut as he spoke. “The Unicoin we’ll be saving in wages in the long run alone will make the time and effort invested on the project well worth it.”

“Not only that,” noted Father, glad to see that Grandfather seemed to be so pleased with him, Kériel saw. “Think of all the possibilities this will open up for Mattis Industries, once we’ve secured the patents and cornered the market.”

“Don’t be so greedy now, son.” Grandpa Jors finally took his gaze away from his generous dinner and fixed it on Father instead. “If the robotics project is still in diapers, like you’ve just said, then it’s still far from being a sure bet. Besides, we still have to find a way to get around the unions before even thinking of implementing bots as a large-scale workforce.

“You know union leaders won’t be too happy when they learn that their affiliates will lose their jobs because of this, basically overnight. We’ll have to make sure that the transition’s done as smoothly and gradually as possible to avoid any potential trouble with the unions.”

“Unions have never been a problem,” Father refuted. “You and I both know how easy it is to buy the allegiance of their leaders. Moreover, the sheeple has this extraordinary capacity to adapt to . . . progress. It’s always been like that and—”

“Not always,” broke in Grandpa Jors sternly, his fork pointing fixedly at Father now. “When pressed too hard, even the lowliest of creatures will fight back, Jeormon. Remember your teachings.”

Grandpa’s eyes roamed the high table where his four children were seated, along with their respective spouses and their own children.

He motioned at all other tables around them, next. “Keep our peers in mind, as well. Many of them would be very nervous if we were to do anything that could be seen as a provocation by the masses. That would only help increase the number of enemies that we already have within the Hall.”

“House Draksas keeps conducting all kinds of deranged experiments,” said Father, in a tone that Kériel had heard countless times before when he was close to losing his temper. “The number of patients subjected to Lyenkos’ program has swollen every year since Kyros implemented it, some thirteen years ago, and we both know what will happen to all those folk in just a few more years.

“Then, there’s House Crisal, still experimenting with all kinds of subliminal advertising and propaganda. The al’Douels are responsible for the costs of housing rising steadily with each passing year, thanks to their innovative construction methods and shady leases.

“If this goes on much longer, many a hapless commoner will end up on the streets in no time. And I don’t hear the rest of the Hall crying foul any more than I see the members of Draksas, Crisal or al’Douel worry too much about the number of enemies that this might create for their Houses. Why shouldn’t we benefit as much as any of them?”

“Two words,” muttered Grandpa muttered, before turning his attention back to his thick, bloody steak. “The Omen.”

Father opened his mouth only to shut it in a blink, Kériel saw.

It was always the same when he was around his own father. Grandpa Jors would choose a topic, Father would start arguing with him, and by the time Grandpa sent a warning stare in his son’s direction Father chose to remain in sullen silence for a long while.

Kériel didn’t understand a thing, however. If what Grandpa had just observed was true, then that meant millions of folk would lose their jobs and that couldn’t be a good thing. How would they make a living? How would they be able to sustain their families?

Well, Father must be thinking about giving them new jobs, I guess.

Or wouldn’t he? In that case Grandpa Jors would take care of all those folk. Yes, Grandpa would give them new jobs, no doubt. There was nothing to worry about.

They looked so much alike, Father and Grandpa, that it was almost impossible to believe that they were so different in truth. Both were tall, burly men, black of hair with milky white skin, round, rosy cheeks and big blue eyes.

Grandpa Jors’ black hair was thin and grey, and his belly was also much rounder than Father’s, but he must have looked like his firstborn’s twin when he was younger. Kériel was sure of it.

Kériel and her three sisters also looked like clones of each other, except for the color of their skin, perhaps. Kay and Zadie took after Father so they were chalky white, whereas Kériel and Alsbeth had Mother’s smooth, olive skin.

Other than that, they all had the same features as the next girl, as well as the dark hair and the big, bright blue eyes of the Mattis line, save for Alsbeth. As for their personalities, Allie, who’d been at the Farm for nearly two full years now, was the only one amongst her three sisters that Kériel would dare say she resembled.

Kay and Zadie . . . well, her little sister’s makeup and interests couldn’t be more different to theirs if they tried.

Speaking of Zadie, she was seated a couple of spots away, between Mistress Styrr and Mother, followed by Father. They were all seated at the right of the table, close to the header where Grandpa Jors occupied the seat of honor.

Saying that Zadrinne had paid no heed to her little sister all night long would be a major understatement, though Kériel was more than used to that by now. It was such a shame that there weren’t that many children at the feast, other than her sister and her cousins, for she’d always had much more fun with children of the small Houses sworn to Mattis than with her own kin.

Her cousins were still a little too young and her middle sisters were always thinking of ways to have fun at little Kery’s expense, as opposed to having fun with her. If truth be told, going completely unnoticed to Zadie’s eyes was the best thing that had happened all evening long . . . till the time came for the girls to go to bed.

Shortly after dessert was served, Kériel’s uncles and aunts told her cousins’ tutors to take their children to the guesthouse. Mother, who’d been strangely quiet during dinner, took that as her cue and turned to Móriel at once. “Take the girls up to their rooms, Mistress Styrr.”

“Right away, Lady Seramís.” Móriel stood promptly from her seat and motioned for Kériel and Zadrinne to follow suit.

As everyone else, the girls were served a glass of wine before dinner. As a mere formality in their case, for Mistress Styrr took the glasses away from Kériel’s and Zadrinne’s hands immediately after they took a little sip when Father was done with a toast and a speech to honor Grandpa Jors, shortly before dinner were served.

What Móriel forgot to do, however, was to place the fine crystal glasses away from the reach of her two wards. So the glasses still sparkled a bright crimson under the lightrods illuminating the gardens, scarce centimeters from Zadrinne, by the time that both girls rose from the table.

Kériel had not yet completely stood from her seat when Zadie stretched out her hand and reached for one of the glasses, as softly and casually as possible . . .

The crystal glass went up in the air and suddenly Kériel’s beautiful blue silken dress was bathed in a fine wine, red as blood and cold as ice.

“I told you I’d get you later, stupid,” murmured Zadrinne with a malicious grin on her lips, as Kériel became the focus of all eyes gathered round the high table.

It was not seeing her evening dress drenched in wine or becoming the center of unwanted attention that gave her face a purple hue. It was that stupid smirk on Zadrinne’s face, added to her sister's obnoxious mocking giggles that filled Kériel with uncontainable rage.

She leaped in her sister’s direction, her fingers stretching out at once, looking for Zadrinne’s hair as they did. “I’ll show you who’s stupid!”

“Girls!” Móriel yelled behind their backs, as Kériel began to pull her sister’s hair harder than the comb in their governess’ hands had done to her own hair when Móriel was fixing it. “Behave!”

As their governess tried to split them apart Kériel caught glimpse of a large shadow from the corner of her eye. It took her a millisecond to realize that Father had bolted from his seat as if shot by a turbocannon.

He reached her so quickly that it was impossible to believe that such a large man could move so fast. Her rage turned to instant fear when Father’s thick, strong fingers wrapped themselves forcefully around one of his daughter’s small arms. He shook her so brusquely that it was as if he wanted to separate her arm from its socket.

“What’s wrong with you?” he demanded between gritted teeth. Tighter yet was his hold on both of Kériel’s arms now, as he kept rattling her like a saltshaker, his face so close to hers that he bathed her in spittle while he kept chastising his daughter. “Behave, you miscreant!”

“I–I . . . It wasn’t me!” she screeched sharply, barely able to contain the fear that had overcome her. “It was Zadie! She . . . she’s the one who started it all!”

“I don’t care who started what!” Father kept shaking her so fiercely that she felt every bone in her body rattle. “You will not embarrass the entire family in front of all these guests!”

At that moment the stupid guests were the least of her concerns. Still, she couldn’t help but spare a quick glance at the other tables, her eyes widening like a cat’s, filled with terror as she realized that all other eyes were fixed on the high table now, fixed on her.

Maybe that’ll stop Father from shaking me so hard, she thought, with the slightest of hopes. Yet help came from an unexpected source.

“The little one’s right,” said Grandpa Jors, approaching his son from behind. “It was Zadrinne who started it all. I saw how she hurled her glass of wine at Kériel. And the only one embarrassing himself here before all our guests is you, Jeormon, scolding your daughter in such reprehensible fashion.”

That worked wonders.

Father, who was leaning before Kériel to look her straight in the eye, stopped shaking her at once and turned to look at the guests instead. He swallowed hard and rose slowly, his fingers letting go of his little girl as he did. Alas, by then his fingers had left red marks all over Kériel’s arms, so big that everyone could see them as clearly as the tears clouding her eyes.

“Get her out of my sight!” Father growled in Móriel’s direction, his eyes narrowing as he turned his attention on Grandpa Jors.

“I’ve always done your bidding, Father.” Kériel heard him say behind her back whilst Móriel led her away from both men. “I always do everything you ask of me without complaint or hesitation, but I will not let you tell me how to raise my own daughters!”

“You call this raising your daughters, Jeormon?” Grandpa Jors gave a dry chuckle. “Go back to your seat and stop making a fool of yourself, will you?”

“Come now, girls,” muttered Mistress Styrr at both her wards, holding on tight to their hands as she led them briskly away from the gardens. “And you had best behave yourselves now. You’ve already caused enough grief for one evening as it is.”

Father’s furious, Kériel thought somberly, realizing at once that the little incident would have dire repercussions for her.

Father always took it out on his daughters after a fight with Grandfather. And now that she was standing in the middle of the latest rift between Father and Grandfather, she didn’t even want to contemplate the punishment awaiting her.

That thought was enough to keep her quivering almost as hard as when Father shook her, as if she were nothing to him other than a ragdoll. And she kept shivering all the way back to the Manse.

To think I wanted Father to notice me tonight.

Well, Father had taken notice of her indeed. Alas that was only for this particular evening for Father decided to punish his daughter by not speaking to her at all for the next two years.
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