I have played the man and the woman of the house for as long as I can remember. I'm not only the oldest sister, but the father and the mother of my siblings.
Our real father is ill and cannot get up from his bed. We see him only on weekends in his room, while he is taken care of by the King's maids.
I lost our mother at the age of six. Ten years have passed from then on.
I turned sixteen last month. My brother is fourteen, the older sister after me is thirteen and the youngest sister is eleven.
They sit with me outside our small house in a line of other small houses, wearing bear skin fur pelts from the bear I hunted today. Under it are our ragged robes, shabby leather belts around the waists and high-knee boots.
"I hate the snow," my brother comments, kicking at the ice on the ground with his boots. After clearing it from his spot, he sits down, back against a tree, legs tucked under his pelts.
He's only a few years younger than me, but he isn't very tall - about a little more than a head shorter. His hair is dark-brown and messy - obviously because he doesn't comb them - and his eyes are light-brown. There's a spray of light freckles on his fair skin.
"Why would you, Audric?" asks my thirteen-year-old sister, shaking the icicles out of her long, silky, auburn hair. "It's snow. Everyone loves it. You can make snowmen in snow. Adelina loves it. Don't you, Addy?"
Addy nods her little head. Being the youngest here, it's strange that she is not aggressive like a stubborn child at all. She's not in the least spoiled, but I believe one would expect that of a poor family.
Addy has a small dome of shaggy, dark hair. Her eyes are wide and brown. She's very petite, her facial features show a small nose, freckly cheeks, a small, pointed chin and thin eyebrows.
Audric grins. "Such a liar, Addy," he says. "You should've seen her face when I shoved her into a heap of ice the other day."
My head snaps up. "You did what?"
Audric rolls his eyes. "Stop being so overprotective, Alys." he chides. "She's fine. Right, Addy?" He glowers at Addy and the little girl nods again.
I am not convinced. "You're not supposed to shove people into snow!"
"Calm down, Alys," says the middle sister, Cecily. "She's well."
I shake my head. "It'd better not happen again, Audric," I warn my brother. "You could injure her. She's already very small."
"I'm not small," Addy contradicts.
Audric's grin widens, one corner of his lip sinking into a dimple. "Hear that, Alys? Quit being so uptight," he tells me. "She's got muscle, this lass." He holds up one of Addy's skinny arms and I suppress a smile.
My brother's the only one in the family with a sense of humour.
Cecily giggles. "Audric -"
"Children," a deep voice interrupts us.
We hate being called that, but we still respond to it by turning our heads in unison.
A man is standing there, his limp, black hair falling against his pallid face. His eyes are pale-blue - or one of them is, at least. The other one is covered with a black eye-patch. And he's not tall - he's big. There's a red scar running down his cheekbones that gives him a rugged appearance.
We all recognize him well.
"Your Grace, the Duke Tybalt," I say, coldly, my tone not carrying the heavy respect in my words.
He gives me a long, glacial glare. "Alys, Daughter of the Former Admiral. Come with me."
"We're coming too," says Addy instantly.
She's usually very quiet, something which the Duke would appreciate, but probably just to annoy him, she boldly speaks up whenever he's around. I have to give her full points for courage.
The Duke glowers at her. "What did you say, Mouse?" he asks, then looks around at the others. "And why are all of you sitting like that? Didn't your father teach you how to respect the Duke?"
"Don't talk about our father, you prick," Audric growls. I try to silence him with a glare, but he doesn't look at me, his bloodshot, angry and determined eyes set on the large man before him.
He gets to his feet, the Duke Tybalt towering before him.
Tybalt smirks down at him. "And who is this? I forget."
"Audric Godfrey," my brother says, proudly.
Tybalt's smirk doesn't waver. "That pride might get you skewered some day."
Audric's eyes are confused, but the Duke doesn't explain. Instead, he turns to me.
My siblings and I follow him inside the small house. The winter sun gives little light for the room we enter, so Tybalt lights an oil lamp. Its red glow illuminates his face.
"Today, you will all move into the castle," he explains, slowly, as if we are naive kids, who wouldn't understand. "You are no longer evacuees here."
He paused and glanced at Audric. "These are the King's orders. He has lost his Admiral and your father's last wish was to make him," - he points distastefully at Audric - "a soldier for the King."
To that one stunning piece of news, we all have different reactions.
"Me?" Audric cries, delighted.
"Soldier?" Cecily demands, in disbelief.
"For the King?" Addy hollers, repulsed.
"Hang on," I intervene, panic rising inside me very slowly. "What do you mean he has lost his Admiral? And, last wish... last wish?"
The Duke has the nerve to smile. "Yes," he hisses. "Your father is dead. You are orphans, child. You are alone."
There are no tears on my face - we barely knew our father and now, he's gone. All we'd ever done was see him on weekends and talk about the bad weather.
I don't know what feelings to show and what to hide.
"My son will escort you to the royal castle," Tybalt continues, as if nothing has happened. As if he hasn't just told us of a death.
"The body," I manage. "The funeral. We weren't there... When did he die?" From the corner of my eyes, I see Cecily and Audric exchange sympathetic glances.
If anyone of us had truly loved our father, despite not knowing him well, it's me. Not them. Not even Addy.
"Three days ago," Tybalt said.
He turns to the door. "Get my son in here." Then, he looks at us. "Carriage is outside. Go."
We hadn't noticed but a white-haired wisp of a man had been standing by, watching us with his hawk-like golden eyes. He's thin and tall - a loyal of the Duke. His name is Terrowin.
Terrowin nods and leaves instantly, coming back in scarcely two minutes, accompanied by a tall boy with a mess of black hair on his head and pale-blue eyes like his father. The resemblance ends there. The boy isn't big and buff like his father, but he's got a pretty decent body. He's tall and not big. He's not wild and crazy like the Duke, but he's devilishly gorgeous - the type who looks like he might be great in bed.
Not that I care, though. I'm only sixteen.
His name is Beau. He stays in the castle with his father, but he comes around here often with messages from the King. I've heard rumours about him being a love child, but I'm not sure.
He smirks at me, his dimples showing. "Coming?"
He holds out his hand, but I slap it away, scowling as I head outside, where a carriage now waits, a man sitting at the front - the chauffeur.
Audric climbs up before me. I help Addy in and Cecily follows.
I push my leg up onto the carriage floor and am about to climb in when I see Beau smirking at me wickedly, a teasing gleam in his dazzling eyes. He's so near me, I can feel his icy breathe on my neck. His lips look so sensual up close.
"All right there?" he asks. "It looks like you need help."
I smirk back. "Thanks, but no thanks." I shove myself into the carriage and sit beside Addy. Audric and Cecily are on the other side.
Cecily giggles. "He likes you."
I snort. "I don't care." I reply. "He flirts with everybody."
"Yeah," Audric agrees, sullenly. "Pathetic player. I don't like him."
"That's because he's better at everything than you," Cecily comments.
"What do you know about it?" Audric snaps. "Mind your own business, Ceci."
Cecily and I exchange surprised looks. Audric calls her that only when he's very annoyed and that's rare.
I notice Addy is oblivious to our conversation. I wonder what she's thinking about. Whatever it is, I hope it's good.