Year 107 in the Time of the Sons
The candlestick looked ethereal even as it stood firmly upon the table before her, solid and rigid as any made of brass or wood might be. Wisps of blue and purple coiled and swirled together, always moving up and down to give the appearance of the long, narrow shape, curved and bulging in decorative knobs and slender divots. Ruth scrutinized it with a close eye, resting her chin on the table as she squinted at her conjuration with all the judgment an artist often used on their own work.
Through its mostly transparent form she could see the figure of her mother standing with arms folded, a stern expression on her face.
“Now you can’t get mad at me for practicing,” Ruth stated as she sat up, feigning a look of innocence.
“No,” her mother admitted, her tone holding firm as she spoke. “Your conjuring looks marvelous, you’re doing a good job. That aside, I can be cross with you for dallying.” The older woman held her arms wide in exasperation. “Your father has been absolutely frayed over this meeting and you’re not even dressed for it yet!”
“So I’ll just conjure some clothing,” Ruth stated with a shrug as she stood. With a snap of her fingers the candlestick was gone leaving no trace behind.
“And just have your clothing vanish in a matter of hours??” Her mother blurted out. “I think not!”
“I was joshing, Ma, clearly!” Ruth responded, her face heating in embarrassment. Normally she could joke with her mother easily, but right now it seemed she’d underestimated how agitated Ma was. “I’m sorry, I just wanted to get a bit more work in while I still had time,” she admitted, her voice softening. “I’ll be dressed and ready shortly. I promise Pa won’t need to worry about waiting on me.”
Tephiste relented to her daughter’s compliance, her own stern look melting away.
“I know you didn’t want to go,” she told her daughter as Ruth headed over to her wardrobe, “But your father greatly appreciates it. He’s nervous about meeting the Count and having you there makes this easier for him. You know how he is at gatherings.”
“Sort of odd that the Count chose someone as shy as Pa as an advisor, isn’t it?” Ruth asked with a light smirk as she sifted through blouses and colorful trousers. Her father was a kind, knowledgeable, and very skilled man, especially in the ways of magic. But socially personable and charming? That he was not.
“I’m certain the Count has his reasons,” Tephiste chided gently. “Now hurry on and get dressed. I need to go check on your father and make sure he hasn’t fussed himself into rethinking his outfit for the fourteenth time.”
“I look like a half-shaved mutt,” Roghen Alminna muttered as he stared at himself in their short vanity mirror. Tephiste moved around him, smoothing out his clothes as best she could as she checked him over.
“You look fine, dear,” Tephiste stated plainly and gently patted his cheek. His face was smooth and stubble-less, and the fur cloak resting on his shoulders did look mildly out of place over the otherwise colorful and embroidered clothing he preferred to wear. “It’s too cold to go without a bit of bundling for the trip. Can’t have you catching a chill just before you meet the Count.”
“I don’t think I can do this,” Roghen admitted, breathing out slowly. Tephiste took his hands. They were cold and trembled. She held them in her own and smiled at him with warm assurance.
“You’ll do just fine,” she told her husband. “You’re just going to meet the man. It’s not like you’re giving speeches or anything.”
“But what if I do, though? What if I’m supposed to warm up the party with a sudden speech?” Roghen panicked at the thought. “Do you think he’d ask that? Like a, ah, a test or something?”
“I don’t think one tests the credentials of an advisor by having them give impromptu speeches at parties,” Tephiste responded coolly. “Anyway, Ruthymne will be there with you. You can always have her throw her hand in at writing one on the fly, or…” Tephiste pursed her lips as she pinned the collar of her husband’s cloak closed. “...have her tip over a table and buy you both some time.” She raised her gaze back to her husband’s face and playfully pinched his cheek as she smirked. “Escape in the confusion.” She gave his fur-adorned shoulders a firm pat.
“That would be the exact way my meeting with the Count would end, wouldn’t it? Bedlam and property damage.” Roghen let out a deep sigh, hoping the absurd thought would help quell his nerves.
It did not.
“I’m sure it will be a wonderful time of a wonderful Count meeting his wonderful new advisor,” Tephiste asserted firmly. “And no bedlam or property damage will ensue.”
“Except in lieu of unprompted public speeches,” Roghen added. His wife tapped his cheek with her hand.
“There will be no unprompted speeches, I promise you!”
Roghen let out another deep breath but allowed her confidence to calm him. She was likely right. She also had a much better head for situations like this. Unlike him, always nervous and uncertain. Even now anxious thoughts were spinning themselves in his mind once again.
“Why do you think the Count wanted me for his advisor?” He asked his partner, as he’d done a thousand times over by now. The question came up several times a day ever since he’d received the news about his position. Usually Tephiste reassured him with some passive statement that gave him no answer but still felt calming. This time she settled him with a curious look.
“Honestly?” Tephiste admitted. “He’s probably hoping for the prestige of having a personal mage.”
Roghen’s brow furrowed and he huffed softly, trying to judge if his wife was teasing him or not.
“Are you certain? And it’s not because of, say, my good advice-giving skills?”
“My love, if the Count were truly interested in being well advised, I imagine he’d be wed by now and have a stern partner of his own making him second-guess his every action.”
“You don’t make me second-guess my every action,” Roghen responded, his shoulders relaxing as he gave his wife’s arm a squeeze.
“I could, though.” Tephiste raised her eyebrows and narrowed her gaze in a mixture of jest and threat.
“And that’s exactly why Ruthymne is coming with me instead,” Roghen admitted with a weak laugh. “Do you…” he hesitated. “Do you actually think I was only selected because of my magic?”
“Of course not, darling!” Tephiste’s tone was more pacifying than reassuring. “Just… you know, it might be worth the effort to make peace with the thought of being a social accessory...”
The pair looked over as Ruth hurried into the room, dressed in trousers of green with a beautiful leather corset of dark walnut and a golden top. She wore tall boots and long leather gloves, and her woolen cloak of dark green did not look as out of place as Roghen felt in his fur draping. Her long ivory hair was pulled back into a loose ponytail, a much more casual look compared to the many fine braid’s her father’s long blonde hair was in.
“I’m ready to go!” She announced to her parents as she tugged her gloves into place.
“You can do her hair on the ride there,” Tephiste murmured to her husband, cutting him off before he could voice a complaint. She leaned in and gave him a kiss on the cheek. “Now get going. You two enjoy the evening and I’ll see you sometime tomorrow.”
Roghen sighed heavily and nodded at his wife before he stepped away. Ruth followed and the two left for the carriage that waited to take them to meet the new Count of Red Wood.
“Would it really have been so bad to go alone?” Ruth asked as she sat, jostling with every bump and sway of the carriage as it rolled along the woodland road. Both she and her father were working braids into her fine, pale hair.
“Well if I’m busy trying to convince the Count that I’m a family man, I would prefer to have some of my actual family there with me,” Roghen responded. Ruth tilted her head over her shoulder as she raised an eyebrow at her father.
“You think the Count will care that you’re a family man?”
“I haven’t the slightest clue what Count Madhiir thinks or cares about,” Roghen muttered out honestly. “I can only hope I found out any of that this evening.”
Ruth turned to gaze out the window at the scarlet trees surrounding their carriage. She and her family lived in the county of Red Wood, so aptly named for the mandria trees whose vibrant crimson foliage was present nearly year-round. Several small villages and a few larger towns sprinkled the land, and Ruth’s family, the House Alminna, resided in one of the largest and oldest towns of the county. Nearly seventy years ago, the town of Mandria Copse had been established as the first foothold in this southern region, and it helped define the Red Wood area as other settlements slowly sprouted up around it.
For two decades now the people had been pushing for the Duchess to assign to them a representative who would speak for Red Wood in the Duchess’ court. This year she had finally agreed, but to the surprise of all, instead of naming a local and granting them the title of Count, the Duchess had given the position to a foreigner from beyond the eastern mountains. Ruth’s father had only received the news that he was being selected as the Count’s advisor just over one month ago. The several weeks that stretched between the announcement and this evening’s party had been a mess of confusion as her father reached out to every official he could to learn anything at all about his new employer. Despite his efforts he’d come up with very little information, save for the name Madhiir.
Ruth thought the mystery was intriguing but mostly found the politics boring. It was her main complaint about joining her father on this excursion. She had little interest in parties and posturing and talk of things that she had no understanding of. She would much prefer to be practicing her conjuring or working with her hands or hiking about in the woodlands in search of seasonal forage and flowers. Perhaps the Count’s estate would have some grounds she could explore, she mused to herself, assuming her father would even let her slip away. Surely his nerves would not be so bad that he’d demand her to stay by his side for the entirety of their visit.
Hours passed and finally the towering stone estate of the Count of Red Wood’s manor came into view; a sprawling mansion built atop a hill where the beautiful scarlet trees had been cleared away. Ruth had never seen a home so massive. She thought it looked more like a small castle.
“Do all Counts have homes as large as this one?” She asked. Her father chuckled softly.
“It’s not just a home, Ruthymne, it’s a hub. It’s a business. There’s many more people than just the Count who live and work out of here.”
“It’s grandiose,” she told him, though her tone did not imply she felt that was a good thing.
“It means good things for Red Wood’s future, you’ll see,” her father reassured with a smile.
Ruth could already see great crowds of people milling about, all of them dressed more esteemed than either herself or her father. She frowned. This place did not feel like Red Wood to her.
Finally the carriage came to a halt outside the estate. Roghen stepped out from their ride first, then turned and offered his hand to help his daughter. They linked arms and Ruth could feel how tense he was as he drew in a deep breath.
“Well,” Roghen gave her a cautiously optimistic smile. “Let’s go meet this Count Madhiir.”