The Pinnacle of Power

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Sisters

Jeormon Mattis’ Manse was the largest property in the suburbs of Niemadar. The great estate that Jeorson Mattis gave as a wedding gift to his firstborn was also well known across the entire Niemadar Region. In fact, the symbol of Jeormon Mattis’ might was so huge that it couldn’t go unnoticed if you tried.

The three main structures were the guesthouse, the apartment building housing the employees and servants, and the main house, dwelling of clan Mattis itself. All three buildings were made out of pearly white limestone, linked together by cobbled paths that looked like snakes basking under the sun, built on top of a hill flattened by the hands of man.

The small hillock upon which the Manse stood led straight to the front yard shaped like a crescent moon, forever teeming with all kinds of air and ground vessels alike. A stand of sinewy pots filled with mint, fern, and other kinds of greenery tended with care on a daily basis, rose below the thick, tall walls protecting the entire estate.

The mighty Fountain of the Pantheguars, proud crown jewel of the front yard, stood tall and proud between the great iron gate that sent dark green ripples on a sunny day, and the thick door of polished white wood leading to the main house.

The square gardens behind the Manse were split by the twisted, cobbled paths connecting the three main structures, and were safeguarded by a high curtain of lush trees and a three-meter tall wall of limestone and mortar, crowned with a thin but deadly, high-wired fence.

The main house was a broad, rectangular, two-story monster divided into three bays, decorated with four tall, thick, marble pillars, which stood like sentinels before the front door under a large, flat roof. The guesthouse was a two-story villa offering more luxuries and better services than most grand tourism hotels in town.

The five-story building housing the servants and employees was larger and broader than most apartment buildings in downtown Niemadar. All structures were built in the region’s typical, conservative style.

Four square booths of thick cemecrete roofed with thin silver-plate stood at each of the property’s four corners, all equipped with surveillance holocams, manned twenty-four-seven by a couple of guards on twelve-hour shifts.

A very similar structure to the surveillance booths, only much larger and with fancy finishes, rose to the left of the main house: the gym, where Kériel was headed this morning.

A flight of stairs to the left of the kitchen inside the main house led down to a rectangular passage covered in its entirety by transparent spathaka divided into blocks by thin, silver-plated beams; a canopy offering a great view of the gardens.

Golden streaks coming through the tunnel’s transparent walls and ceiling kept the hardwood planks under Kériel’s feet warm, announcing yet another hot day to come in the middle of summer in Niemadar. Fortunately the house’s potent artificial climate units, or articlime, kept the passageway fresh and cool.

Kériel was dressed in the same loose slacks and light t-shirt that she donned every morning for her daily workout routine at the gym. Móriel, on the other hand, looked quite different today.

The constant click-clack-click-clack made by the thick heels on Mistress Styrr’s black leather shoes plainly suggested that she would not be participating in the workout session programmed for the younger of her two wards today.

The old governess walked with her head high and her back straight, in a sober, dark-grey business suit that was definitely much too formal for a combat drill with wooden blades, such as the one scheduled for Kériel this morning.

“You won’t be practicing with me today,” she dared venture, as both women made their way to the farthest corner of the gardens.

“Of course not, child,” said Mistress Styrr, in the most obvious of voices. “You’ll be practicing with your sister this morning.”

“With Zadie?”

Móriel gave a sharp, brief nod. “Since you’ll be leaving for the Academy in six more weeks, it’s time for you to face another opponent.”

“But Zadie hates me,” protested Kériel, mildly. “She won’t hold back like you do, Mistress Styrr.”

“I do not hold back, child,” Móriel shot back at once. “My role is to teach you, and that certainly includes basic combat. Doesn’t mean I have to pluck out your eyes or break your bones, though. As for practice with Zadrinne, don’t be so dramatic, dear.

“Your sister and you may not be best friends, but that doesn’t mean she hates you. Besides, since Zadrinne’s older and more experienced than you, today’s drill will help us prepare you for what you’ll be facing at the Farm.”

The Farm.

Now that she was thirteen Kériel was perfectly aware of the reason why the Academy was called that, and just who the animals were. At least in the eyes of the high and mighty Hall of the Selected.

They’ve never bred animals at the place, she thought, darkly. And taking into account what I’ll be learning at the Academy, I might as well call it the Slaughterhouse.

That wasn’t entirely true, though. Mistagents were bred, trained and conditioned at the Mikhur’vihar. And did Mikhurvat ever learn how to deal with the animals, as Mistress Styrr had told Kériel when she was not yet nine, and still too young to understand the way things truly worked.

To think I’ll be spending the next six years at the place . . .

The idea wasn’t enticing at all, to say the least. But there was nothing she could do about it. Every single Child of the Selected attended middle school at the Mistagent Academy, where they learned all about the glorious history of the Hall and they were taught amazing psychic skills that could only be obtained through Tapping into the Intangible.

At the Farm the Children of the Selected also learned all about politics, military strategy and tactics, martial arts and espionage. In short, they were taught everything but for the nonsense that the poor commoners learned in schools designed to “keep the sheeple in blind, blissful ignorance”.

That was what set the Selected apart from the common folk, or at least that was what Móriel claimed. Since the Vardikhar were special, their children learned Akaladia’s true history by studying some of the secrets contained within the Pinnacle of Power.

Only firstborns were allowed to download the information directly from the Inforacle. That was how they managed to kindle the Spark of Connection, too. But Allie says that not even the Heads of the great Houses know the entire Pinnacle of Power.

That was exclusively reserved for the master of the Selected, in accordance to big sister’s words. “Tradition demands that the Heads of the twelve Houses take their firstborns to the Heart of the Mangrove; the thick rain forest standing in the midst of the Hintala Jungle, where the ruins of the old Sanctuary in the Jungle, the Inforacle’s resting place, still stand to this day. Once there, we must all enter Khevala to be personally introduced to the Adi’vardikhar.”

A year had not yet passed since Father took Alsbeth to the Ayat’vanam, as the Sanctuary was known in the High Tongue of the Selected, and her experience had been so intense that Allie could hardly speak of anything else for a long time.

She’d even gone as far as to share everything that she experienced in her journey, including what she’d felt when the Spark stirred deep within her.

“It’s . . . hard to explain,” Allie had said. “First you feel this sort of . . . warm, pleasant tingling. But then you start shaking like crazy. You feel like this jolt running up and down your body, as if your hand were a cable and the Inforacle a kind of socket.

“Then you feel . . . Well, it’s kind of like waking up from deep slumber, little sis, because you download the Pinnacle of Power in a flash! So you go from knowing nothing at all to gaining all this deep knowledge and wisdom overnight. It’s . . . it’s just weird, you know?”

No, Kériel did not know nor did she wish to know. All she knew for a fact was that once Alsbeth was done describing the Great Master of the Selected, her upcoming trip to the Academy didn’t seem all that bad after all—

A sharp moan coming from Móriel’s lips brought her reverie to an abrupt end. They’d just stepped into the gym, realizing as they did that Zadie was nowhere to be found.

“Choose your weapon, child.” Mistress Styrr pointed at the back of the gym, where a wide array of wooden swords and daggers hung from a rack protruding from the large mirror that was the gym’s back wall.

Kériel did her governess’ bidding. She went across that rectangular room, which looked more like a dancing floor than a gym to her eyes.

Walls and floor were polished wood, except for the great mirror at the back of the room. About the only thing reminding you that the place was a gym indeed, were the heavy workout machines and the weights resting on the farthest corner of the room.

Then again, Móriel’s always said combat with the malleablade is like a dance . . .

Whether that was true or not, all that Kériel knew was that she didn’t feel like dancing with her sister at all, not even with blunt wooden sticks as opposed to sharp metal blades.

“Not that one, no.” Móriel pursed her lips in disapproval. “The sword’s too heavy for you, child. You’ll barely be able to keep it off the floor.”

Kériel placed the long, heavy sword she’d chosen back on its socket in the practice weapon’s rack. Then she reached for a smaller and more importantly, a much lighter saber from the great collection of practice weapons, before turning back around in her governess’ direction.

This time Móriel gave a pleased nod.

“Maybe you and I could get started while we wait for Zadie, Mistress Styrr,” Kériel suggested, hopefully.

Perhaps Móriel would have a change of heart and punish Zadie for being late, instead of forcing the two sisters to whack each other to death . . . Though for that, Mistress Styrr would have to change her attire first.

Her governess gave her head a vehement shake. “They will do you no favors at the Academy, dear. At the Mikhur’vihar you must do as you’re told, Child of the Hall or no. And if you think I’ve been harsh on you, just wait till you’ve met Instructor Döttersen. Once you get to know him, you won’t even think of talking that oaf into—”

“I’m sorry, Mistress Styrr!” Zadie broke into the gym abruptly, panting so hard that she could barely breathe as she spoke. “Mother . . . she asked me to . . . to run some errands for her and . . . and I just lost track of time.”

Not being all that important to Mother and Father does have its advantages, Kériel thought dryly, as her sister waited for their governess’ reply.

They were supposed to be in their summer break, all four girls, though Kériel knew that the Vardikhar never took a break, nor their children for that matter . . . unless you happened to be the youngest of four siblings and your parents didn’t pay that much attention to you.

Móriel spared a brief glance at her chronobracelet, pursed her lips and gave her head a slow shake. “Choose your weapon and assume your position, Zadrinne.”

Zadie walked straight in her sister’s direction with a brief twinkle flashing in her eyes as she moved, which promised that the drill would be as painful for Kériel as she’d suspected all along.

She walked away from the weapons rack and pretended to look the other way when she crossed paths with her sister, as both made their way back to the middle of the gym.

“Ready to get your arse kicked, little sis?” Zadie’s voice was brimming with confidence and enthusiasm. But most of all, her tone was pure malice.

“You’re welcome to try,” said Kériel, defiantly.

Móriel’s right, she thought as she assumed her position, ready for the drill to commence. I’m sure I’ll face much more dangerous opponents at the Farm than this stupid airhead.

Alas Mistress Styrr was also correct when she’d observed that that same stupid airhead was older and more experienced in combat than her little sister.

Kériel had been taking her hand-to-hand combat lessons from Móriel for nigh on to three years now. And despite her less than inspiring appearance, her governess was a capable, talented combatant, she’d found.

No acolyte sworn to a great House would even dare to contemplate harming a Child of the Hall, though . . . lest they be under orders to do so. Therefore, not once did Mistress Styrr let herself go, in any of her combat drills with the younger of the two girls under her charge.

Zadie, however, was under no restriction of any kind, as Kériel was about to find out.

“Take your positions and wait for my signal,” their governess commanded from her observation post in a far corner of the room.

Kériel put the wooden blade in an upright position before her body, Zadie doing the same exact thing, at the same exact time.

It was like looking in a mirror, for Kériel was almost as tall as her sixteen-year old sister. And though she never grew as fat as she’d feared when she was younger, she must weigh about the same as Zadrinne now, too.

Actually, at thirteen she was almost as tall and weighed about the same as Cámiel, who was seventeen now. Should she keep growing at the same rate, she’d probably be taller than nineteen-year old Alsbeth. At the end of the day size and strength mattered little in combat with the malleablade, though. Or so Móriel would claim.

“Now!” yelped Mistress Styrr suddenly. And before Kériel knew what was happening Zadie was on top her, fierce as a pantheguar.

She grimaced on instinct and turned her blade right in an attempt to contain her sister’s initial charge. Alas Zadrinne was so fast that Kériel could barely try to defend herself. Her sister gave her no time to study her moves so she could find a way to anticipate them.

Zadie looked so convinced that she’d defeat her sister with such ease, in fact, that she decided to throw caution to the wind and came at Kériel with everything she had.

“Don’t stand like that in front of your sister, Kériel!” Móriel bellowed at her back. “Your feet, child! Move your feet as if you were dancing and step sideways! Don’t give your sister such a large, clumsy target.”

The problem was that Zadrinne was barely giving her time to breathe, let alone move with any semblance of coordination.

Zadie’s attack was relentless. She whirled left suddenly, and then she twirled right. It was all Kériel could do to move her blade sideways, up or down, in a desperate attempt to contain her sister’s unstoppable barrage.

She was shocked when she realized that she succeeded at first. None of Zadie’s initial strokes found their mark, in spite of their speed and intensity, till a sudden, hot throb on her ribs prompted Kériel to coil like an eel and to squeal like a mouse trapped in the claws of a cat.

That’s exactly how this feels, she reflected, abruptly. It’s as if Zadie was a cat that is toying with me, and I’m nothing to her other than a little, insignificant rodent.

That was how she’d always felt, in truth. To the eyes of all members of House Mattis little Kery had never been anything other than an irrelevant little mouse, all her slamming life. Mouse had teeth though, and those teeth of theirs were sharp, besides.

That was the first thought that crossed her mind, as a fierce sense of resolve took hold of her senses, forcing her at once to strike back at her sister. The sudden change in tactics worked at first, apparently, as her right hip traded a hot sting for the chance to bring her blade up and down in a swift, circular swoop aimed at Zadrinne’s neck.

Her sister was surprised at first, though she was too fast and effective to allow for Kériel’s blow to reach its mark. Zadie took two or three quick steps back, and the wooden blade on Kériel’s fingers barely grazed her left shoulder.

If anything the counterstrike only helped to infuriate Zadrinne. Kériel’s sister furrowed her brow, bent into a low crouch and raised her blade, all in one swift movement.

The strength that Kériel had poured on her stroke pushed her entire body forward, turning her into a sitting duck looking straight at the barrel of a turborifle. Her face was now completely exposed to the huge wooden blade that sprang in her direction, as Zadrinne pounced on her, quick as lightning.

Kériel must have looked like an idiot, though that was nothing next to the brutal impact that shook her to the bone as Zadie’s blade met her sister’s protuberant jaw head on. A wince of pain was suddenly etched on Kériel’s face as her hands let go of the practice blade, looking for her lips instead.

She closed her eyes, a rusty taste filling her mouth as her jaws and chin throbbed something fierce.

“Enough!” hollered Móriel, immediately before rushing in Kériel’s direction. “Move away from your sister, Zadrinne.” As Zadie obeyed her command, Mistress Styrr placed her bony fingers on her younger ward’s swollen visage.

Kériel lowered her gaze to the floor, realizing at once that the gym’s hardwood planks were covered in scarlet droplets all around her feet. She pulled away from her tutor, pushing Móriel’s hands from her face as she did, to spit more blood on the floor.

“Oh, come on,” said Zadie, with a shrug. She was looking at her sister with a straight face, but a malicious, disturbing twinkle flashed in her eyes as she spoke. “I didn’t even hit her that hard.”

Kériel wasn’t so sure about that. She tried to reply but her lips felt like a couple of balloons and her tongue burned like the sun. Móriel, however, did seem to share Zadrinne’s opinion.

“Come here, Kériel.” The gaunt woman motioned to her protégé, prompting her to obey. “Let’s have a look now.”

This time Kériel did her governess’ bidding.

“Hmm . . . yes,” announced Mistress Styrr, in her usual flat voice. “The wound’s not as serious as all that, indeed. You just have a broken lip, is all.” She fixed Kériel with a long, stern look. “I’m disappointed in you, dear. I was certain you’d give your sister much more of a fight.”

Well, if you were doing a better job at training me, this drill would’ve been longer and my mouth wouldn’t feel as if I’d just swallowed a bastard laserlighter!

Alas, none of this was Móriel’s fault, in truth. And the worst part was that Kériel knew it. She just couldn’t say if it was her jaw, her broken lip, her chin or her pride, which hurt most at the moment.

She was just looking for a way to vent the anger burning hot inside of her then and there for she knew her sisters well enough to realize that the humiliation hadn’t even started yet. And in the end, she was not wrong about that either, she found.

Mistress Styrr took her back to her room. She filled her ward’s mouth with a painkilling spray that had a bitter, unpleasant taste to it. Though that was nothing next to the bile that Kériel could still taste in her mouth.

Móriel also applied an antiseptic lotion on her lips and cheeks to help ease the swelling somewhat. Kériel’s lips were full and thick, in addition to her protuberant jaws. And so thanks to Zadie’s hack her face must look like an aerofreighter by now!

She just couldn’t say which was worse: her humiliating defeat at her sister’s hands, the throbbing pain that Móriel’s remedies were trying to contain, or the swollen balloon that Zadrinne had made of her visage.

So she wasn’t surprised in the very least when Zadie gave a loud, mocking giggle, as soon as she saw her sister standing in the hallway between their respective bedrooms, as the two girls rejoined Móriel to go downstairs for supper with the rest of the family.

It was rare to see the whole clan come together, though taking Kériel’s rotten luck into consideration, it only made sense that Father had decided that the Mattis clan would be supping together tonight.

Cámiel and Mistress Dottiri, her own governess, were already there when Móriel led her charges into the dining room. The two older women exchanged pleasantries before ordering their respective wards to take their seats at the table.

Once the girls obeyed, Móriel and Éllanie Dottiri strolled towards the farthest corner of the room, where they became engaged in a pleasant, animated chatter amongst themselves.

The two governesses had not yet turned their attention from the girls when Kay was already looking straight at her youngest sister, chuckling and shaking her head as Zadie and her took their seats at opposite sides of the table, one in front of the other.

As Kériel was taking her own seat on the table’s left side, between Zadrinne and Móriel’s usual spots, her two middle sisters exchanged coy glances and burst into a mad cackle, the couple of stupid airheads.

“Ha-ha, very funny,” she babbled indignantly, her voice so thick because of the painkiller that she was barely able to make out her own words.

If Zadrinne and Cámiel understood their sister’s angry protest or no, the sound of her voice was enough to get them laughing so hard that it seemed as if they would choke at any given time.

The dining hall was a huge room, besides, the table large enough to seat a dozen folk comfortably. But since it was empty save for its five current occupants, the sound of Zadie’s and Kay’s mirthful gales echoed off the walls.

“You were so lucky it wasn’t me you had to face in practice today, Kery,” said Cámiel in a light voice, as she wiped a tear from her eye. “I would’ve probably busted that whole horse face of yours!”

The barb was enough to prompt more giggles from her and Zadrinne’s lips.

Kériel turned to Móriel at once, looking for her governess’ support. Alas Mistress Styrr looked as stoic as ever. The old woman remained in the back of the dining hall, still conversing pleasantly with Mistress Dottiri.

A stone would be of more use to me right about now, Kériel thought, with increasing annoyance. I could throw it at these two, at least; see how they like to get their own mugs busted, too.

Now, why would she expect her governess to come to her aid, when to Móriel she was nothing other than part of her job?

She couldn’t say, but as she thought of a good comeback—and a way to express herself clearly, so as not to sound like a drunken sailor come out of the many taverns of Port Brudapour—help came from another source.

“And how would you like it if I were to break all your bones in our next drill at the Academy, sweet sister?”

Kay turned swiftly around to gaze upon Alsbeth.

Big sister had just entered the room, with a smile on her lips that went from Cámiel’s back to Kériel’s swollen face in a pinch. Allie sent an encouraging wink at her little sister before taking her seat on the first chair standing to the left of the table.

“You stay out of this, Alsbeth,” Kay shot back, heatedly. “This is why Kériel’s such a whiny, insecure, little wimp: you’re always sticking your neck out for her. Why don’t you let our dear little sister learn how to stand up for herself, for a change?”

“I’m not sticking out my neck for anyone, Kay.” Ally’s reply came in a low, cool murmur, which helped to establish that she was the authority amongst the four sisters. “I’m only stating the facts, is all.

“Kery’s just learning how to fight and obviously, Zadie and you are still ahead of her, just like I’m way ahead of the two of you right now. Or have you already forgotten the beatings I used to give you during our first combat drills together at the Farm?”

“Come now, girls,” put in Móriel, whilst both governesses approached the table to take their seats next to their respective charges. “This sort of conversation is very unbecoming for a group of young, decent ladies. Leave the boasting of fighting and violence to the brutes and the oafs in drinking holes, and behave like the proper young ladies that you are.”

Even if the girls had dared to ignore Mistress Styrr’s words, Mother and Father entered the dining room at that precise moment and all talk ceased as if by magic.

Without a word or a glance at any of his four daughters Father took his seat at the header, and as usual, Mother placed her lithe frame to the right of her husband, followed by Kay and Mistress Dottiri. Allie, Zadie, Móriel and Kériel were seated to Father’s left, in that order.

Mother pressed a button protruding from the edge of the large table, and immediately servants dressed in impeccable livery appeared through the door leading to the kitchen at the farthest corner of the room, each of them with a round silver platter hanging high above their heads.

Kériel despised all of that grim formality, though she knew better than to share her feelings. For a long time, when she was nothing other than an innocent, gullible little girl, she’d always thought that family dinners were so grim and formal because the clan was coming together to celebrate some special occasion.

The members of her family were no commoners, though. Mattis was one of the proudest, most powerful Houses in the history of the Hall of the Selected, and the Vardikhar did everything with grim, grand formality.

If it were up to me I’d fix myself a sandwich and take it back up to my room, she thought, as one of the servants placed a steaming bowl of mushroom cream before her swollen visage.

The menu was not so elaborate, at least. The mushroom cream was followed by chopped steaks and onions dipped in green chili sauce, a typical dish of the Niemadar region, accompanied by an expensive red wine imported from the famous vineyards of Siagos for Father, Mother, Allie and the two governesses, and a large glass of cowgoat milk for Kériel and her two middle sisters.

Every time she put the spoon in her mouth, the sting was so hot that she was all but convinced that she wouldn’t be able to pass down the main course. So she decided to go easy with the soup, all the while wondering if they would all sup in complete silence.

It didn’t take long for Allie to break with all that bleak grimness, however.

“As for what you were saying earlier, Mistress Styrr,” big sister took up the conversation where she’d left it off, her grey-green gaze digging deep into Móriel’s sunken blue eyes as she spoke, “in this day and age I believe women should know as much about martial arts as men.”

“Perhaps,” allowed Móriel, somewhat reluctantly. “Doesn’t mean the topic belongs to the dinner table, though.”

“And what topic would that be?” Father’s eyes went from his bowl of soup to Móriel’s face first, and then to Alsbeth’s. “Martial arts? Is that really what you want to talk about, Beth? Then I’m complete agreement with Mistress Styrr. That sort of talk belongs to the training yard . . . or to the gym, in this case, and definitely not to the dinner table.”

“This is all because I taught Kériel a good lesson this morning,” said Zadie, her casual tone so fake that it immediately earned her a couple of chilling glares from Kériel and Alsbeth.

“So I see,” muttered Father, taking notice of his youngest daughter’s swollen face for the first time since he’d sat on the table. “But that makes no difference. Kériel won’t have to do much fighting once she’s married.”

“We’ll all be married someday,” she put in timidly, remembering how her life had been planned for her even before she was born. “That doesn’t mean I won’t have to learn how to defend myself at the Academy, though.”

“Which is precisely the reason why you’re being taught how to fight as we speak,” Father replied in a curt voice. “But just by watching your face right now, I’d say physical combat’s not your strongest suit, child. Moreover, at the Farm you’ll learn many other things other than fighting. That’s just one part of your education, and I don’t want you to linger too much on it.”

“Your father’s right, Kériel,” added mom before she could reply, with the same condescending look that appeared in her eyes every time her youngest daughter was at odds with her spouse. “Besides, childbirth’s a real struggle, not to mention raising your children,” said Seramís Mattis, a woman that changed her daughters’ diapers not once in her life, at least not as far as Kériel knew.

“And with Kériel’s generous hips, I’m sure she’ll give you many grandchildren, Lady Seramís,” noted Mistress Dottiri, obsequiously.

If there was one thing about her body that Kériel couldn’t stand, it was those huge hips of hers, precisely. They’d always made her feel as fat as a whalephin and now, she was also certain that she’d be much more agile and faster in combat if she were as slender as Kay or Allie.

Though Zadie’s a little plump too, she reflected.

Alas her big hips were the least of her concerns. The important thing was that she did not want to take someone she didn’t love for a spouse, much less bear a total stranger’s children. She may not know the first thing about martial arts but she knew that much about her own life, at least.

“Kery’s right,” Alsbeth insisted, as the servants took the empty bowls away from the table. “As the future Head of a House, albeit a small one, she’ll have to learn as much as she can about martial arts, among many other things pertaining to the arts of combat.”

“She will be the wife of the future Head of a small House, not the Head herself,” Father corrected his firstborn, sternly. “Moreover, like your mother, Kériel will have a large security force to watch over her and her children, Beth.”

“But what if my House were at war with another House?” Allie’s courage had emboldened Kériel, she realized. Broken, swollen mouth or no, she had to see if there was a way for her to get out of her future betrothal. “Or what if one or more of our servants were to turn on my future spouse?

“What if he were injured or killed, and I were forced to defend my life and that of my children? That’s why I need to learn how to fight, Father.”

“Enough with this nonsense already, Kériel.” Father was having none of it. “No one will hurt you or your future family, because as long as you stay true to House Mattis, you have my word that House Mattis will always look after you and your entire future House.

“What you’re being taught about the combat arts as we speak ought to be enough, not only for you to make it past your internship at the Farm, but so you may learn how to defend yourself reasonably well. That’s all you need to know about this particular subject.”

He turned swiftly to Allie next. “And you, Beth, I don’t want you filling your sister’s head with this folly. Someday you will be Head of House Mattis, hence your position and Kériel’s are entirely different.”

A discreet, nearly imperceptible sniff from Zadie prompted Kériel to send a sideways glance at her sister before turning her attention back to Father, her words out of her lips before she knew it. “I’m not afraid of getting hurt. I just don’t want people to keep laughing at me.”

“Learn how to do better, then.” This time Father’s voice had more annoyance than anger to it.

“Your father’s a very busy man, Kériel,” added mom. “Please don’t burden him with this nonsense.”

Everything coming from my lips is nonsense to Father. That was what she wished to say. And you, Mother, are just the same.

What would she gain by voicing her thoughts, though? In truth, Father had the right of it.

If Kériel truly wanted to earn her sisters’ respect—or anyone else’s, for that matter—she would have to earn it the hard way . . . And that went far beyond learning how to fight with her fists, or her legs, or a firearm, or even the fabled malleablade.

In a world that had never wanted her in the first place, Kériel would have to learn how to survive.

This family supper was the perfect example, though arguing further or sulking, would do her no good. So she sipped a little mushroom cream absently, skipped the main course and dessert, and remained in sullen silence till supper was over.

Then she went back up to her room, without another word or even a glance at Mother, Father, the two governesses, or her sisters.

The swelling was already subsiding by the time she was done undressing, and the painkiller seemed to be working, too. She slipped into her nightgown and readied herself for bed, struggling mightily to contain a sudden dread that threatened to take complete hold of her senses, as she remembered that she had another combat drill scheduled against Zadrinne, two days hence.

Fear would not defeat her, though. Kériel would fear her sisters no more. If being treated like dirt all your slamming life had one advantage, it was that it made your skin so thick that you could tolerate indifference with ease.

Abuse, however, was an entirely different matter altogether. And since Kay and Zadie were a couple of consummate bullies, why should they pass on the chance to mock and abuse their little sister, when like dinner, it was presented to them on a silver platter?

Indifference could be tolerated but abuse had to be countered. She saw no other way.

“Slam them both!” she thought out loud, while slipping under the covers. “I will learn how to fight and then I’ll make them regret their provocations. Lights!”

The small lamp resting on the nightstand obeyed at once, and a deep darkness fell on her bedroom.

“And who’s going to teach you how to fight, little sis?”

Kériel gave such a start that she even forgot to command the lamp to turn on again, though her sister took care of that for her.

“Allie!” she yelped, whilst turning on the bed to look at her sister. “What, did you forget how to knock on a door when you ignited the Spark or something?”

Big sister replied with a genial smile. “No need to go knocking on doors in Khevala, Kery. Get up and come here.”

When Allie gave her that look Kériel knew better than to question her sister. So she did Alsbeth’s bidding. She stood from her bed and approached her eldest sister, slowly and reluctantly.

When she was close enough, Allie’s fingers reached out for her little sister’s hands, grabbing them firmly as she did. Then she closed her eyes and began to breathe so softly that her chest was barely moving.

Almost instantly, Kériel felt a surge of energy running through every fiber in her body, her senses sharpening in a way that she’d never felt before.

She was in Khevala!

Her Mind’s Eye gazed upon the silvery streaks of moonlight, shinning like beacons in the midst of an otherwise impenetrable gloom. As she stared at that silvery shimmer, her bedroom took on the shape of the gym in a flash.

She was still reeling when Allie let go of her hands and said, “Lights!” in a clear, loud voice.

“Now, this is what we’re going to do,” big sister explained, as the gym’s wooden walls and floor sprang to life under the yellowish glimmer coming off the lamps hanging from the ceiling. “You’re going to choose a weapon and we won’t get out of here until you’ve learned how to put obnoxious Zadie in her place, and shown her why she should never make fun of you again.”

“Oh, come on, Allie,” protested Kériel feebly, whilst Alsbeth walked towards the rack filled with wooden blades. “You really think I’m going to learn how to fight that unbearable sister of yours, let alone beat her, in just one night?”

Two nights, Kery,” Allie corrected her with a sly grin on her lips as she grabbed a couple of practice blades, the first of which she hurled in her sister’s direction. Reflexes kicked in at once and Kériel caught the wooden blade in midair. “We have two nights to prepare you for your next drill with Zadie, little sis. And since I know all of her moves that should be enough for now, you’ll see.”

“But—”

Alsbeth charged like a raging cowgoat, refusing to listen to her sister’s feeble protests anymore.

This time a survival instinct that Kériel did not even know she possessed came over her entire Being, helping her to contain her sister’s furious barrage somewhat . . .

Alas that was only in the beginning.

She never knew how long the lesson lasted . . . two . . . three hours . . . maybe more. And the next evening’s drill was just as long and intense, if not more so. By the time Allie was done with her instruction, her little sister was so beat up that she could feel every millimeter in her body throbbing in a way that seemed to tell her that this time, the damage would be much worse than a simple broken lip.

Alsbeth knew what she was doing though, for in the end the cuts and bruises on Kériel’s body were the result of minor, superficial wounds sustained during the two secret training sessions.

So two days later, when the time came to face Zadrinne in the gym one more time, save for a minor ache here or a little soreness there, Kériel was more than ready to show her middle sister what Alsbeth had taught her in secret.

Zadie came into the gym, strutting with the overconfidence of all those who know themselves far above their rival.

Good, Kériel thought, barely able to contain her eagerness. Let her think that she’s so much better than me, and that she’ll give me another good whipping. I can hardly wait to see the look on her face as soon as she’s seen what I’ve got in store for her today.

Móriel was not yet finished giving the sign when Kériel was already lunging at her sister, quick as lighting on a stormy summer afternoon. Her initial charge took Zadie completely by surprise for Kériel was even faster, more violent than Allie had been with her during their two secret training sessions.

Unlike Alsbeth, however, she didn’t wish to hold anything back.

By the time the brief drill was over it was not Kériel’s mouth but her pride that was swollen, along with Zadie’s face. Nevermore would Jeormon Mattis’ youngest daughter be the laughing stock within her House. Nevermore would poor, little Kery be the victim of Cámiel’s and Zadrinne’s constant taunts and provocations.

And it was all because of Alsbeth. Kériel would never forget the manner in which big sister came to her aid.

Still smiling from ear to ear, as soon as she made certain that Móriel and Zadrinne weren’t looking, she solemnly vowed to herself that someday she would do all that were within her power to pay the debt owed to Alsbeth.


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