[Author’s Note] Thank you for your interest in Lord of the Night Realm: Book I - Sojourn! This excerpt is a preview of the first five chapters of the full book available on Amazon for Kindle and paperback. They've been updated to the final manuscript from their original serial version.
In the middle of a clearing in a dark pine forest sat a lonely tree stump. A scattering of glowing flowers swayed in the breeze and coated the ground in a gentle blue light, imitating the night sky above. From a small path emerged a little, pudgy rat dressed in a blue shirt and green waistcoat with a simple, white cravat. It hopped onto the stump, then sharply turned its head when it heard a sound from the bushes at the clearing’s edge. Determining that it was nothing, the rat reached inside of its waistcoat and retrieved a small scrap of parchment. Scrawled on its surface were the names of several rare herbs, along with a simple note; ‘A short trip this time’.
The rat returned the parchment to the waistcoat’s inner pocket, then reached beyond the stump’s edge and fetched a stick of chalk. It began drawing eight arcane runes inside of a circle on the surface. When it was finished, the rat stood in the center on its hind legs and clutched the chalk close. With a wave of its paw, the runes began glowing faintly with white light. Soon, the arcane circle was replaced with a gaping black void that overtook the face of the stump and pulled the rat within.
On the other side of the pool of darkness lied another forest clearing, though a bit different than where the rat had just emerged from. Sunrise poured between the beech and maple leaves from the trees that lined the clearing. From beneath the rat’s feet, the void and even the stump itself disappeared without a trace, leaving the small creature alone in the woods. It tucked the stick of chalk beneath a few blades of grass beside where the stump had once been. With a reassured nod, the rat scuttled off into the woods to begin its task.
It was July 20th and the final day of exams for the fifth year college students of Leyia Academy, one of the Eight Sister Academies of Phiana. It sat on the western edge of the coastal city known for its excellence in academics. The academy taught primary, secondary, and college students of that district and those living in the city outskirts. Each classroom on the third floor—reserved exclusively for college courses—was currently packed with students concentrated on their exams.
At the eastern end was a classroom dedicated to literature, taught by one Professor Evan Emmett. He was a middle-aged man with short, brown hair with streaks of gray at the sides that met with the beard he kept closely trimmed. Befitting a professor of literature, he was dressed in black trousers and a white shirt covered by a dark brown vest, and rested on his nose were round glasses that somehow always found their way to the nose’s tip.
Emmett was leaned back at his desk at the head of the classroom. In front of him were twenty students seated at their own desks. The classroom was particularly stifling this time of year, but a welcome breeze gave respite as it passed the open windows. The wind would occasionally pick up, causing a student or two to let out a startled gasp as they pinned their fleeing exams to the desktop. It was an ounce of humor during an otherwise dull two hours.
Emmett glanced to the ornate clock on the wall, which read one fifty eight.
“Two minutes remain,” he called out. “Please begin finalizing your exams.”
In the third row sat a young woman in deep concentration on the final question. She brushed a loose bit of her long, auburn hair away from her eyes and tucked it near her ponytail with the rest of her side bangs. In one hand she pressed the quill to the parchment as the other tensely gripped the skirt of her blue summer dress. The quill moved slowly as she strained to give an answer, but the further along she went, the more certain she became.
“One minute remains,” Emmett called once more.
The young woman took a deep, relieved breath and a smile formed as she jubilantly lifted her exam in front of her. When the ink had dried, she shuffled the papers back into the proper order and looked over the front page. Sitting in the upper corner was a blank field intended for her name. Frantically, she set the exam down and snatched her quill from the inkwell, writing ‘Eleanor Martel’ in the blank space. She shook her head at her own folly and the thought of turning in her final exam with no name.
The hourly bell on the academy grounds chimed at two o’clock and Emmett sat up straight in his chair.
“Please place your exams into the accompanying booklets and hand them to me on your way out,” he instructed the students. “After going over your exams and essays, your final grades will be sent off in the post. You can expect them one week from now and—assuming you passed—I’ll be seeing you at the graduation ceremony on August 4th.”
Eleanor followed behind the student ahead of her and cradled the exam booklet to her chest. As she awaited her turn, she peeked in the booklet once more to be absolutely certain that she did indeed write her name.
“Eleanor Martel,” Emmett said when she approached. “Please wait in the hallway until I call for you, if you could.”
Her brow furrowed as she handed the booklet to her professor, whose gaze did not meet hers.
“Certainly,” she nodded, and followed behind her classmates.
Eleanor clasped her hands behind her and leaned against the wall beside the door. She watched the remaining students leave the room and make for the nearby stairwell. The happiness they exuded from finally finishing college was contagious, and Eleanor found herself smiling along with them. But not a one stopped to chat with her as they did with other classmates, as classmates were all they had ever been.
The last student stepped out of the classroom and Eleanor heard Emmett call her name. She was unsure what to expect and cautiously stepped back in.
“Good, you’re still here,” Emmett said, tapping the exam booklets on the desk and aligning them neatly.
“Yes, um…” Eleanor scratched her nose. “Did I do something wrong, Professor?”
Emmett gave her a surprised look. “Oh, no no. But since college is now over, I wanted to know what you have planned for your apprenticeship.”
“My apprenticeship?” She stepped up to a desk and rested her palms on the edge as she leaned back. “Well, I didn’t really have anything planned. I was just going to help my mother with her concocting.”
Emmett stared at her over the edge of his glasses. “Surely you did not attend five years of college to be an apothecary?”
Eleanor bit her lip nervously as her professor placed the stack of booklets to the side and leaned forward, folding his hands.
“Without a doubt, an apothecary is a noble profession. However, it’s an apprenticeship you could have pursued after secondary school.” He reached into a desk drawer, pulled out a file, and flipped through several pages before stopping. “Overall, your grades range from average to excellent, but it’s apparent where your passion lies and it most certainly is not grinding and boiling herbs.”
“I’m sorry, Professor.” Eleanor raised her hand to stop him. “I’m confused by the purpose of this conversation.”
“Eleanor, I’ve been your literature professor for ten years.” He folded his hands again as he continued browsing her records. “I’ve seen how enthusiastic you are about literature through the combined years of secondary school and college.” Emmett looked up to her again and smiled. “Assuming that your heart isn’t set on being an apothecary, would you consider being an apprentice to a literature professor? Namely, my apprentice.”
Eleanor let out a brief but loud laugh, then clasped her hand over her mouth. “I’m sorry, what? Is this some sort of joke? Surely there are students with perfect grades that are far more worthy of such an offer than I am.”
“Perfect grades are all well and good, of course.” Emmett leaned back in his chair and tapped his fingers on the desk. “But that only shows me that a student is capable of doing their work. Do they covet the subject or a perfect set of scores? No, a student who only does well is not what I seek in an apprentice. I’m looking for someone who cares about the subject and does well.”
He stared at Eleanor, whose eyes were fixed on his desk.
“From day one, I’ve seen how passionate you are about literature. There is no denying that you are my best student. Certainly, you could stand to give categories other than fiction more attention, but even those you treat with respect. Who better to take on as an apprentice than you?”
Eleanor couldn’t possibly say anything amid the swarm of a hundred thoughts. As she stood there wringing her hands, Emmett returned his gaze to his desk.
“You don’t have to answer right away. But, if you could tell me by graduation, I would appreciate it. However, if you need the duration of the summer holiday to decide, then by all means.”
“I will absolutely have an answer by graduation.” Eleanor finally tore her eyes from the desk’s surface. “I’m sorry, I’m not indifferent or anything. Just stunned, I guess. Never in my life did I think I’d be given such an offer. I’m not exactly one of the wealthier students that these apprenticeships typically go to.”
“Well, it’s my decision to make and I already explained my reasoning.” Emmett adjusted his glasses and closed the file before returning it to the drawer. “I hope to hear back positively, but will understand if you decide against it.”
Eleanor nodded. Of course she was excited, but she couldn’t completely shake the feeling that this was all some sort of joke. Nervously, Eleanor dismissed herself and approached the door, only to be stopped in her steps by her professor calling out to her.
“Now don’t be so hasty to leave, Eleanor. There’s one more thing.”
With flushed cheeks, she turned back toward him.
“You’re aware of the upcoming delegate banquet, yes?”
“The one for the representatives from the other Shards coming to Phiana for the Joining Anniversary? Yes, I know of it.”
“Well, due to Phiana being an academic city, professors from the Eight Sister Academies have received invitations and are welcome to bring an apprentice or prospective apprentice. Even should you decide afterward to not take the offer, it would be an honor to have you join me.”
“By the Triad,” Eleanor whispered to the floor. “This day’s just full of surprises, isn’t it?”
“Stay focused, Eleanor. Is that a yes or a no?”
“Sorry! Of course, yes, definitely. But I’ve never attended anything more formal than a holiday dinner at my grandparents’ home.”
“Ah, it’s simple enough,” Emmett laughed. “Just dress your best, make nice with the other professors and apprentices, listen to the delegates’ speech, and mind your table manners.”
“Sounds simple enough, but knowing me I’ll probably make a mistake somewhere,” she smiled. “But, yes. I would love to attend.”
“Perfect. It’s the evening after the day of graduation. We can work out the details later.”
“I’m looking forward to it.” Eleanor glanced at the door. “Well, if there is nothing else, Professor?”
“No, nothing else, Eleanor. I will keep in touch.”
She nodded and bid her professor farewell. Once she entered the hall, Eleanor sighed and began mulling over the conversation. As she descended the nearby stairs, her mind was immediately occupied with daydreams of becoming a literature professor and teaching others about countless stories. So merry was Eleanor that she practically skipped through the hallway that passed the primary school classrooms. She barely heard the secretary at the front desk in the foyer bid her a good day, and awkwardly exchanged the well wishing as she passed through the main entrance.
Warm, summer air and a cool sea breeze washed over Eleanor as she stepped onto the academy yard. She watched her fellow classmates relax in the shade of the trees with a wistful smile. Gone were the days where she wished they would invite her for once, her relationships with them as distant as the days they met. Even still, seeing how they interacted always left her wanting, though never for the company of those snobbish few among the upper class who found her an easy target for their harsh words due to her solitude.
Eleanor started down the stone path toward the road as her green eyes gazed at the sky and at the distant, floating continents that dotted it. The barely visible Shards had been present in the sky for her entire life, but it was still a wonder that only forty years had passed since the worlds joined as one in the Sea of Clouds. The distance between them was great, but Eleanor hoped that common travel to those far-off lands would be permitted in her lifetime. Until then, there was plenty for her to see on her own Shard, even if she had only ever spent her life in the country of Galviece and barely traveled beyond Phiana.
The scenery around her changed from city’s edge to countryside as she followed the main road westward. Eleanor had walked the mile-long stretch of this particular route countless times since her first day of school fifteen years prior. Would she walk it countless more if she became a professor at Leyia Academy? Eleanor had only just been made the offer for apprenticeship, but here she was getting carried away thinking about something that was years away. Surely, as a child she dreamed once or twice of being a literature professor, but never did Eleanor think she would actually be offered an apprenticeship. Yet now that she had, she was overcome by a hundred fantasies.
A dirt road branched off the main highway and led Eleanor to a tucked away neighborhood where there sat an orchard. Tracing her fingers along the stone fence as she strolled, Eleanor smiled at the rows of fruit trees and the glimpses of the woods beyond them.
She soon found herself at the house neighboring the orchard; a two-storied cottage that was painted a faded yet pleasant shade of blue. Just on the other side of the wooden gate were an abundance of flowers and other plants that tightly hugged a stone path leading to the front door.
Eleanor reached across and unlocked the gate before stepping in and closing it behind her. Though she approached the front door of the house, her attention was quickly drawn toward the garden to the left, which was wedged between it and a fairly sizable wooden shack. Tilling the soil in the garden was a man of average height and about twice Eleanor’s age. His hair was also auburn, but kept short with slight sideburns on either side of his face. The mere sight of him made Eleanor beam.
“Dad!” she called out and trotted over.
There was a loud clanking sound from inside the shack. She thought for sure that her father didn’t hear her, but he soon looked up from his work and grinned widely as she approached.
“Ellie, welcome home, dear!” Her father stood up straight and wiped his hands off on his soil-stained tunic, then rested his weight on the handle of the cultivator before leaning his head back toward the shack. “Vena!”
“What is it, Bram?” a woman’s voice called back.
“Ellie’s home from her exams!”
“Oh, good! Send her in when she’s able!”
Ellie smiled to her father, but became startled when he started teetering. Bram caught himself on the cultivator and laughed anxiously.
“I’m just a little tired.” He turned toward his daughter. “How were your exams?”
“Well, I like to think I passed exceptionally.” Ellie placed her hands on her hips and puffed out her chest, then relaxed again shortly after. “But the grades will arrive in the post next week.”
“Ah, well I’m certain you did—as you say—pass exceptionally.” Bram laughed and adjusted himself, then sighed through heavy breaths as he struggled to keep his inner battle hidden from his daughter.
Ellie stood beside her father and placed her hands tenderly on his shoulders.
“Dad, you overdid it again, didn’t you?” She started leading him toward the house, but Bram stopped her.
“Oh, don’t you worry about me, Ellie. I can get into the house well enough on my own.” He shifted his weight to one side and handed the cultivator to Ellie. “But you’re right, I did overdo it. Will you come talk with me after you see your mother?”
Ellie watched as her father made for the house and entered through the front door. After he had gone, she stepped into the shack—her mother’s workshop—and searched between all the potted plants, alembics, and other concocting instruments. Tilting her head this way and that, Ellie spotted at the other end a tall woman and her unmistakable dark blonde braid woven on the back of her head. Ellie placed the cultivator beside several other gardening tools at the entrance and called to her mother as she strolled to her.
Vena turned to her daughter, shears in hand, and smiled.
“Welcome home, Ellie. Your final exams go well?” She reached her other hand to brush aside her curly bangs from her face, then retracted them at the sight of plant sap on her fingers.
“I like to think so! Literature is my specialty, after all.” Ellie began bouncing on her toes. “Mum, you’ll never believe what happened.”
“Oh? Well, don’t leave me in suspense!”
Ellie hesitated at the thought of how her mother might react to her news. But she couldn’t contain her excitement and told her about the offer from Emmett and his reasoning behind picking her.
“Ellie, that’s incredible!” Vena’s smile gradually changed from genuine to confused. “But… I thought for sure you wanted to be an apothecary, didn’t you? Are you seriously considering this offer?”
“—After all, you told me you wanted to attend college for the additional education, but when you graduated you were going to get serious about helping me.” Vena shook her hands to accentuate her point amid her stress. “I’ve been getting more and more requests from adventurers lately and I can hardly find the time to research ways to improve your father’s condition.”
“I know, I just thought—”
“—No, it’s all right. You said you have time to think it over? Good, I’m sure that with time to think, you’ll work it out in your mind to settle on being an apothecary.”
“I’m sure I will…” Ellie’s face twisted to a scowl when her mother turned back to her plants. “Anyway, I’m gonna go see how Dad’s doing.”
The tone in Vena’s voice irritated Ellie as it crushed her enthusiasm. She paced out of her mother’s workshop and into the house, thrusting the door open with a force propelled by her annoyance. The door swung shut behind her harder than she intended and created an apparent slam before Ellie could stop it, causing her to cringe.
“You know what I say about slamming doors in this house, young lady.”
Bram was seated at the dinner table nearby and raising an eyebrow at his daughter.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to.”
Ellie sulked up to the table and slumped into the chair across from him. The array of potted plants in the open kitchen and family room swayed with the breeze blowing through the windows. Among the aromas was the calming scent of lavender, though it gave her only a brief respite.
“Now, why the long face? You were so chipper when I saw you just a few minutes ago.”
“Dad,” Ellie sighed. “I was offered an apprenticeship by my literature professor.”
Bram’s jaw dropped. “Ellie, that’s amazing news! Are you gonna accept? Wait, are you upset about this?”
“I’m not upset over the offer.” She nodded her head toward the workshop and lowered her voice. “I’m upset over how Mum reacted.”
“Ah, so that’s what happened.” Bram rapped his finger on the table in thought. “Don’t let your mother’s reaction get to you. She’s probably just conflicted. You know that she’s happy for you deep down, but she probably needs time to process this.”
“I guess so.”
Bram reached across the table and patted Ellie’s hand, hoping to alleviate her weighted mood.
“I’m happy for you, Ellie, truly. You should absolutely take the offer if that is what your heart desires.”
“Thank you, Dad.” She smiled, taking her father’s hand in her own.
“Well, it’s nothing compared to your news, but we had a tiny bit of excitement of our own this morning.” Bram pointed to the dark room beside the kitchen. “The neighbors brought over fresh blueberries from their morning harvest and we put them in the pantry to chill for tonight. Doesn’t that sound like it’ll be a nice celebratory treat?”
“It does.” Ellie glanced at the pantry, then noticed a kettle heating on the stove from the corner of her eye. “Are you making tea?”
“I am. Did you want me to pour you a cup?”
“No no, I was just wondering if you wanted help.”
Bram waved his hand. “I can handle it. I’m feeling better now that I’m inside. Maybe you should go relax in your room for now? You’ve certainly earned it after a whole week of exams.”
“I think I’ll do that.” Ellie stood from her seat and stepped to the other side of the table, where she placed her hands on her father’s shoulders and leaned down to kiss him on the cheek. Bram responded in turn by placing his hand on hers.
“I want you to do what makes you happiest, dear.”
“Thank you, Dad. I will, I promise.”
Ellie walked to the staircase in the corner of the family room. On the landing, she glanced back to her father and briefly watched him as he sat amid his own thoughts, then continued to the upper floor.
At the far end of the second floor hallway were a few steps leading into the attic and two bedroom doors that preceded them. Ellie opened the first and entered into the room that she shared with her younger sister, Lillian. It was a neat room—through no effort other than Ellie’s—with a desk, a shared dresser, a small-yet-packed bookshelf, and two beds. Ellie’s was made up tidily enough, but Lillian’s was about as lazy an attempt at making one’s bed could be, having just lifted the blanket so that it wasn’t clumped up and not even bothering to straighten the corners.
Ellie heaved a long sigh and flopped down onto the neatly made bed by the far wall. After pulling her bag off her shoulder and setting it beside her, she retrieved from within an ornate book of which her place was marked with a small bit of parchment. Ellie then flipped to her stomach and resumed her reading in hopes of clearing her mind of the stressful conversation with her mother.
Hardly an hour had passed before Ellie’s attention was drawn to a commotion outside. She sat up and peeked out the nearby window to find her two younger siblings in the yard. Clambering into one of the trees that divided their yard from the neighbors’ orchard was Lillian with something tucked under her arm. Ellie chuckled as Irwin—her younger brother—wagged his finger in a lecturing manner and told Lillian to come down from there that instant.
Ellie placed her open book on the bed and started downstairs, now fully invested in what was happening between her siblings. She stepped through the empty kitchen and family room to the side door, which conveniently led to where Irwin and Lillian were. Across the yard stood the tall, scrawny boy with his arms firmly crossed as he glared up the tree. Ellie stopped beside him and imitated his stance with a smirk.
“What are you doing up there, tree frog?” she asked.
Irwin groaned and pointed at her. “Lillian went into the orchard and took blueberries right off the bushes!” He ran his fingers through his short and wavy dark blonde hair. “I tried to stop her, but she wouldn’t listen. Then I tried to get them back and she scuttled up there.”
“For being thirteen, you certainly like acting like you’re eight.” Ellie tapped her foot. “Why don’t you come down now, Lillian?”
The tiny girl with short, wild auburn hair continued ignoring her siblings and reached into the wood container with one hand while adjusting a barrette with the other.
“There’s blueberries in the house already, you know? We’re having them tonight.”
“Nope.” Lillian took a handful of berries from the container. “They’re better when they’re right off the bush, anyway.”
Ellie and Irwin looked at one another, neither surprised by their little sister’s behavior.
“We should have expected no less,” Ellie shrugged.
“Though there’s only a couple of years between us, I’m far more mature than she ever will be,” Irwin scoffed.
Lillian had stopped in place between handfuls of blueberries and stared intently in the direction of their mother’s workshop. It wasn’t long before Ellie and Irwin both took note of their sister’s drastic shift in mood.
“What’s wrong?” Irwin asked.
“There’s a really weird looking man talking to Mum by the workshop. Not like the usual.”
A serious tone in Lillian’s voice was rare enough to warrant authenticity without question. Ellie and Irwin tried peeking at the workshop from the ground, but it was impossible with the tall plants blocking their view. With no other option, they joined their sister in the tree.
From the higher branches, the siblings spotted a man nearly towering over Vena in front of her workshop. Long, golden locks spilled out from underneath his elegant, feathered hat; the only contrast against his pitch black coat. His presence was suffocating, as though it drained the very life out of the greenery around him. He ran his fingers along the curved rim on one side of the black hat and traced them to the sharp point at the front, tilting it downward as he spoke. Because of this, it was difficult for the siblings to make out any additional features.
“I think he’s an elf. He’s got those pointy ears,” Lillian said.
“Well, he’s certainly tall enough to be one,” Irwin added.
“I don’t like how uncomfortable Mum looks.” Ellie watched her mother, noticing how tightly her arms were crossed against her chest and how she averted her gaze from the man’s.
“You’re right.” Irwin said. “I’ve never seen Mum look that tense when talking to adventurers before. Should we—should we go get someone?”
No sooner had the words passed his lips when Vena then gestured strongly with one arm as though she were emphasizing a point. When she folded her arms again, the man took a deep breath and slowly bowed his head to her. He departed through the front gate and down the road toward Phiana.
The siblings observed quietly as the darkly clad man passed by. A sense of dread swept over them when he blatantly leaned his head to one side and stared at them. Ellie gasped, as it felt like the frigid gaze from his pale blue eyes would pierce her very soul.
Once he was gone, the three of them dropped from the tree and rushed to their mother, who still stood outside of her workshop with her arms crossed in deep thought. Lillian was the first to call out to her as she clung to her mother’s arm.
“Are you all right?” Irwin asked.
“Who was that man?” Lillian added.
Vena’s eyes widened when she realized her children had seen everything, then waved her hand dismissively at their barrage of questions.
“No one, you three.” She reached for her braid and tugged it nervously. “He was nothing more than an adventurer looking for directions.”
“Lillian, it’s fine.” Vena gently pried her daughter’s hand from her arm. “Honestly, it’s nothing, all right? Just forget about that man. Now, if you would all please go inside and help your father start preparing dinner. I’ll join you once I finish with work.”
Reluctantly, Irwin and Lillian sulked back into the house. Ellie stayed a few paces behind and stopped to look over her shoulder at her mother. Vena’s arms fell limp to her sides with a sigh before pacing back into her workshop, unaware that her daughter had been watching her.
Ellie turned toward the road and watched where the man had disappeared, her thoughts returning to his haunting gaze and her mother’s sheer dismay of him. His visage clouded Ellie’s mind so intently that she barely heard Irwin call to her from inside the house.
“Sorry, I’m coming!” she replied, and stepped inside.
The Martel family prepared dinner together and soon forgot about the unsettling man in black. Ellie had even set aside her frustrations regarding the conversation with her mother and convinced herself that she would soon see the apprenticeship in a positive light. She did, however, feel a twinge of guilt as she thought about the stresses of her mother’s work.
Each of them retired to the family room after dinner, with each their own small bowl of freshly rinsed blueberries. Lillian flopped onto her stomach on the rug beside the unlit fireplace, nearly burying her face in the bowl. Two sofas were on either side of the rug, with Ellie and Bram seated on one and Irwin with Vena on the other. Ellie continued reading her book while Irwin glared down at Lillian, who practically ate like some sort of animal.
“You’ve had plenty anyway,” he said, poking at her with his toe and making her whine. “After all, you stole a whole container worth from the bushes this afternoon.”
“Lillian,” Vena said sternly.
“Snitch.” Lillian glared at her brother.
“You know better than that, Lily.”
The mere mention of that name only made Lillian whine more. She was most insistent that her name was Lillian and not Lily. Being addressed as such meant that she was being lectured by family, or that someone didn’t know any better. After all, her fierce reaction to being called ‘Lily’ was the reason that Evan Emmett now only ever referred to students by their names on file.
Bram chuckled as he watched Vena lecture their younger daughter, then turned to Ellie and took note of the book that she was reading. He reached over gently to try to see the cover and accidentally startled her.
“Sorry, I was just trying to see the title. ‘Melody of Shadows’, eh? Is it any good?”
“It is,” she smiled. “A little darker than what I usually read, but it’s a nice change of pace.”
“What’s it about?”
“A village is terrorized by a werewolf, so a woman and her fiance have to fight back against it. There’s a few gruesome descriptions of maulings sometimes, though.”
“That sounds dreadful,” Bram laughed, the delight contradicting his words.
“It’s definitely not the type of book I would expect Grandma to give me,” Ellie chuckled.
“Your Grandma gave that to you?”
“You wouldn’t think so, right? It was a gift from this passed Year’s Dawn.”
Bram and Ellie shared a laugh at the thought of dainty and proper Grandma Martel giving such a gift, probably purchasing the book based on the cover alone.
Their laughter broke Vena from her conversation with the two other children.
“Could I ask you and your sister to run to the markets for me tomorrow? I’m almost out of a few key ingredients for concocting, and we could use a few more vegetables that we don’t grow.”
“Of course,” Ellie nodded.
“Why do I have to go?” Lillian groaned.
“Because you’re being punished.” Vena copied her son and pushed at Lillian with her toe. At this point, Lillian didn’t even complain and instead scooted out of their reach.
The family continued socializing as the evening wore on, though Ellie kept herself relatively engaged in her book. She made a face while reading a particularly over-descriptive part and clapped the book shut. At the same time, Vena leaned her head back to look at the clock near the stairs.
“Hm, it’s already a bit late. Irwin, Lillian, you two should scoot off to bed.”
“That’s fine.” Irwin stood with a large stretch. “I want to wake up early and study for my exams.” He reached for his mother’s empty bowl to take it to the kitchen, but she shook her head and took his instead.
“Right, secondary graduates have their exams next week, don’t they?” Ellie asked, to which Irwin nodded. “Do you want me to help you study tomorrow night?”
“I’d love that,” he smiled.
Irwin and Lillian started upstairs after bidding their parents and sister goodnight. Lillian attempted to playfully kick him in the backside as payback for snitching, but Irwin dashed up the steps and sprinted to his room to evade his sister’s attack.
“I think I’ll head that way, too,” Ellie laughed. “It’s been a long day and I’m exhausted.”
She stood up and leaned down beside both parents, giving them each a kiss on the cheek and bidding them goodnight. When she started up the stairs, Vena moved to the other sofa and cuddled up next to Bram as they were left alone.
Ellie entered the bedroom and watched Lillian wedge herself between her blanket and the bed.
“Can you toss this onto my bed while I change?” She handed the book to her.
Lillian gave the book a gentle toss while Ellie stepped behind a small partition by the dresser and dressed into a light, summer nightgown. She crawled into bed and opened her book to the grisly scene that reminded her why she stopped in the first place. The disgusted face she made quickly faded when she noticed Lillian turn to face her.
“I heard about the apprenticeship.”
Ellie blinked, then gently set the book back down. “From Dad?”
“What do you think I should do?”
Lillian shrugged. “Whatever you feel like.” She turned to her back and faced the ceiling. “Take me, for instance. College doesn’t matter to me, so when I’m fifteen and I graduate from secondary school, I’m done with it forever.”
Ellie laughed softly. “That’s right, I’ve been so absorbed in my exams this week that I forgot that you’re already on summer holiday.”
Lillian raised her arms skyward. “Thank the Triad for the man who decided that seasonal school holidays should be during flow-over months. I get an extra six days of freedom thanks to him, and even more because it’s the end of the school year.”
She looked back to Ellie, who had already resumed reading.
“Did you ever have to read that stupid story about the knight when you were in my grade?”
“Which one? There’s a lot of knight stories.”
“The one that everyone reveres even though he’s excruciatingly boring and not doing anything that any other knight couldn’t do. And basically every woman in the book treats him like he’s a god and swoons over him!”
Ellie snickered at her sister’s passionate disdain.
“I think I remember that one. It was horribly written, but some students insisted that it was the best tale ever told.”
“Every passage was an insult to my intelligence, but we had to read it because it was a so-called ‘classic’. Thanks for nothing, Evan Emmett.”
After sharing in a laugh, Lillian turned her back to her sister. “I’m gonna go to sleep now.”
“May I leave the lamp lit until I’m done reading? I’ll finish soon.”
As Lillian drifted to sleep, Ellie marched on through the difficult part of her book. She found it a little easier to proceed when the scene was finally over, but was frustrated when it ended on a cliffhanger. Though tempted to continue, Ellie decided it best to resume reading the following night. She closed the book and set it on the bedside table, then reached to put out the lamp before noticing the curtain over the window behind it was still open.
Throwing off her blanket, Ellie stood and grabbed the curtains on either side of the window. But as she glanced outside, a horrible feeling crept over her as she could swear that she saw a dark silhouette at the edge of the woods behind the house. Ellie thrust the curtains closed and put out the lamp before scrambling back under the blanket and fixing her gaze on her sister’s back in the dark.
“It’s nothing,” she whispered. “You’re imagining things. Your book just has you unsettled. Everything is fine,” she repeated to herself. “Everything is fine.”