Note: This is an excerpt from NaNoWriMo 2010, aka The Wild Men of Enthard. I’ve wanted to save this piece of the unfinished (and unwinning) half-a-novel for a while, so this is as good a venue as any to give it an airing.
Serro stared absently at the setting sun as it dipped just below the tree line, casting golden, dappled shadows on the smoothly cut expanse of emerald green lawn visible out the window, and tried to blink away his latest batch of melancholy thoughts. Purple-green spots filled his vision, and he made a little frustrated noise as he pressed his hands to his eyes before folding himself over to put his head down on the edge of his desk. His shoes were scuffed again, he thought morosely as he stared at his feet. He should probably see to that.
He sat up straight and stretched, feeling the soft, ancient leather of the seat cushion shifting beneath him. The mahogany frame creaked ever so slightly as he changed position, glancing back down at the documents he had been looking at before his sour mood had overtaken him. He picked up his pen, dabbed it into the inkwell, and was about to continue where he left off when he caught a swift movement out of the corner of his eye, and whipped his head around just in time to see something expensive shatter onto the hard stone floor.
Caston froze and looked at him for a moment, an insufferable, challenging smirk on his ten-year-old face, sprinting out of the room before Serro could even stand up. No doubt he was on his way to crow in triumph to his brother, having won yet another round in the ongoing battle between them: a savage and brutal conflict Serro never seemed able to find his way out of. He swore at length under his breath – he would give anything to be able to shout at the troublesome boy, but he would likely lose his place for doing so – before he heard footsteps on their way down the hall again, whereupon he quickly grabbed the broom that was never far from him and hastily began to clean up the scene of the latest disaster.
“Oh, gods, it’s Lady Ardia,” he whispered under his breath, recognizing the brisk, focused pace, and tried to push away the acidic thrill of helpless anxiety the mere mention of her name always brought him. He started sweeping a little faster, looking frantically around for somewhere to hide the mess. The vase hadn’t been one of her favorite pieces, but she would surely notice. He would have to explain what had just happened without casting any blame on her darling boy, who could obviously do no wrong. Caston had probably already told his mother that Serro had done it, the little bastard. He knew for a fact that wouldn’t be beneath him.
It was coming up on four years that he had been working for Lord Dartu and his wife, keeping their account books and handling what aspects of their home life fell outside the realm of the butler and the housekeeper. Ten years ago, Dartu had found himself a plum assignment on the tax boards. He was quite fashionable at the moment, owing to the shrewdness of certain members of high society who saw the advantages of being on friendly terms with the tax gatherers, his lack of manners and disturbing tendency towards paranoia notwithstanding. To say Dartu was eccentric was to say that the deep, eternal winter of the legendary ice caves of Uckdra could be somewhat brisk.
“Good afternoon, my lady,” he said cordially as the woman entered the room, trying to preempt her displeasure by stepping in front of the pile of porcelain shards and sketching a bow. “I will have this cleaned up right away.” He might be able to get away with just that, if she was in a good humor. He was damned if he was going to say he was sorry for it, even if she was going to blame him. Even if she called her husband into the room to help her with her scolding. He was in no mood.
“What happened?” she asked icily, tucking a stray blond hair back into her elaborate coif. She hardly ever left the house, yet insisted on dressing as if she was about to attend a state ball every day.
“Um. It broke,” Serro replied. “I’ll clean it up -”
“I know you’ll clean it up,” she said. “That’s your job.”
No, it isn’t, Serro thought to himself.
“Who broke it?” she continued.
Serro saw Caston and Cerdan peek their heads around the corner. Cerdan whispered something to his brother and they both started snickering.
“Come in here, boys,” their mother said sweetly, and they came to stand next to her. “Tell me what happened, darlings.”
“Don’t know, Mama,” they both said in unison, and she turned straight back to Serro, not even questioning their honesty for a minute. She never did. The boys stared at him, no doubt delighting in his discomfort. He hated when she yelled at him at the best of times, but it was doubly unbearable when she did it in front of the children. He didn’t work for them – although it sometimes felt like it.
He thought she was really going to let loose at him, like she sometimes did. She sometimes got shockingly personal when she went on one of her tirades, He felt a lump form in his throat, which surprised him – he was not much one for tears – and he swallowed hard, steeling himself for the worst. But a moment later, she completely lost interest in the situation, the intensity in her eyes instantly extinguished as she turned away and dismissed him from her mind.
“Just sort it out,” she said with a wave of her hand.
“Yes, my lady,” he replied as she swept out of the room, the two boys following in her wake. The thought crossed his mind that maybe she had remembered his misfortune and spared him out of some gesture of kindness. That would be unusual, but it would be appreciated. The tiny kernel of good will that somehow found its way into his thoughts barely had time to settle before Cerdan turned around and stuck his tongue out, instantly igniting a new burst of aggravation and frustration.
It had only been a week since his mother had died, and he had hardly been able to find the willpower to get out of bed in the morning, let alone the fortitude to face the pair of hellspawn terrors. He had been very close to his mother, who had been frail and sickly for as long as he could remember, afflicted with a lingering illness that had never been adequately explained to him. He had taken the position with Dartu mostly because the estate was close enough to home to allow him to read to his mother in the evenings, as he had done every day since the first moment she had showed him what the letters meant.
But her health had declined quite alarmingly over the previous winter, and it had been clear to all that the end was near. He had sat there with her, holding her hand, the veins showing bright blue through her translucent skin. His father had stood in the corner, still and silent, his hands clasped tightly together as if wishing he had the strength to be clasping hers.
But he never made a move toward her, never made a sound, except for a single, sharp, shaky intake of breath when she had looked straight at him for a moment with an expression of absolutely loving, knowing, calm; a tiny smile of triumph, like she had succeeded in keeping a secret, strangely mixed with her characteristic gentle, abiding regret. It was an unsettling blend of feelings he had never seen from her before. He hadn’t understood it, but it clearly had not been meant for him. He had almost left the room to give them a moment alone, feeling uncomfortably like he was eavesdropping on an intensely private conversation, but when he looked back from his father’s stricken face to hers, she was no longer there.
Serro closed his eyes for a brief moment and sighed before dumping the remains of the broken vessel into the dustbin. He leaned heavily on the broom, trying to quell the rising urge to take the damn thing and smash everything in sight. It was harder than he thought, but eventually he placed the tool carefully back against the wall before filling the now-barren alcove in the wall with a pile of unopened books on social etiquette. It was the most passive-aggressive move he could probably get away with, and it did satisfy him a bit. It took him an hour to finish his writing, his concentration as fragmented as the unfortunate vase, and the disappearing sun had already plunged the rolling hills into velvety twilight by the time he locked the door to his study and left the great house behind him.