In a way, Eerika’s younger brother was fortunate to avoid family squabbling. He sat outside all the games of manipulation and honorable standings. For the other clan members lay an endless landscape of intrigues that everyone down, to nine year old Colborn, was forced to participate in. It kept them sharp against each other and other clans.
Once they had another brother. Unn, a short year older than Fell, did not survive these games. Only three siblings actually knew what had happened, and that shame would follow them to the grave to be balanced during their next turns at the wheel. Perhaps there they might be allowed a simpler life, free of high noble clan’s intrigues and a tight fisted Region Lord. Or, as their clan father insisted, their performance in this life was all that mattered.
As such gifts, true gifts, were rarely seen in the Asger household. Prizes were to be earned through survival, successes, or learning to give way for need. Most arrived on birthdays, or when honor had been won and could be recognized, and occasionally when a sibling gave up their desires for the household’s betterment.
Each child of the Asger clan hoarded their items while casting glances towards prizes their brothers and sisters received. Measured evaluations were applied to each item, such as a simple looking piece of pottery, new dresses, or stacks of herbs. Jewelry often became the target of bartering and trading favors.
“Will you be reserving your normal field young lady?” An elderly female servant bowed towards Eerika. “Though you are early we always make sure to keep it prepared in case some desires it.”
The first daughter of had been so lost in her thoughts that she naturally veered towards a rear practice yard. Asger’s household had six spread across their property in Sol’s Heart, and they were reserved based on times.
“If you don’t intend to use this field, I’m sure there are many soldiers of our family who can make use of the extra time.” Another female voice spoke nearby. It was sweeter sounding than Eerika’s.
“Good day to you, younger sister.” Eerika kept her hands clutched tightly at the object that burned like a coal.
“Good day to you, older sister,” Eira said with a smile and bow that only displayed respect.
Eerika heard the rumors as serving maids tittered to each other. They whispered of how the Clan Mother had spread her legs for another man. For none of Asger’s overwhelming strength showed as she aged. Eira however showed no lack of both drive and skill despite a four year difference in age.
“However, a better idea occurs to me. I could make use of this field. Would older sister mind allowing me to practice here?” Eira smiled and not an ounce of insincerity could be noticed.
Eerika knew this location was the best on their city property for flame cultivators. It was part of why she normally reserved this small region.
“The sun’s energy is easier to reach at this time of day, and the extra practice should help me break the current threshold,” Eira pressed.
The women of Asger clan all practiced a cultivation method titled Solar’s Five Horses. Standing in an open field where the sun beat down during high noon yielded great results. Sweat rolled from glistening skin as their women burned away impurities and took in the heat.
“I too need to practice younger sister,” Eerika responded. “Rights are granted based on seniority and family.”
As the second child, Eerika often had preferred treatment in nearly everything. Only those with a higher position in the clan could fight for this yard. That meant her parents, or eldest brother Hakon.
“Or performance,” Eira reminded her elder sister. “At my current rate I will be able to take a good spot in the bi-yearly clan meet. Until then it is up to older sister if she wishes to be one who helped the clan succeed, or hindered it.”
They might only be half-sisters, or maybe they were full blood. Whatever spark of talent their father had, only a few of the children inherited.
“You may have yard, of course. Take it with my well wishes in your success,” Erika said. A small jealous part of her wished that Eira might instead break a leg but such a result would be unlikely. Their cultivation techniques usually prevented such an outcome. While their legs became more powerful, honing a long standing trait of their family to brutal perfection, traversing into new platforms often proved difficult.
“Thank you older sister,” Eira bowed while her eyebrows drew together in confusion. Eerika felt proud that caving so quickly had perplexed the younger sibling.
All too often family members sought to keep their training private. This allowed them to hide their true strength from each other and added a layer of surprise to their maneuvers for status. Keeping her birthday gift from Fell secret meant more than arguing with Eira over one day.
No one bothered to explain this to their younger brother Fell. He had proven to follow a different or nonexistent path at too young an age. Cultivation, bottlenecks, all the terms which were used by a traveler of The Way meant little to him. His only successes seemed to be in Piercing the Veil. Perhaps in enchanting.
Eerika hoped the little figurine truly held powers. She could feel it’s heat under her fingers, a pleasant scalding sensation that threatened to become too much. Fell’s looked so much like her. The eldest sister calmly rushed down an alternate pathway, to a small patch of sunlight outside her private room’s window. The light of the noonday sun wasn’t as strong but there was no lack of fire energy.
She set the statue down in her window. It glittered peacefully in a single ray of unfiltered sunlight. The surface of it seemed to glisten with a hard days sweat. Piercing the Veil’s first layer would have shown a leg outstretched and fully aflame with sun energy. Such a true channeling would have been enough to be fifth, or maybe sixth rank, nearly entry level mastery.
Eerika could not Peirce the first veil for sight, and instead showed promise on the fifth veil, for touch. Part of it stemmed from being a physical traveler of The Way. Most that focused only on this path were eventually able to feel energy.
Hours passed, and while the sun set, Eerika felt full of life, as if she still danced her limbs under the sun’s rays. She knew such a gift came from Fell’s creation. The statue was made for her. Even now it vibrated with the same energy Eerika channeled.
“I see you are working hard,” a female voice spoke up from behind Eerika.
Eerika did not respond right away. She stood halfway through a slow motion that strained muscles from the effort of keeping upright. The same pose would be repeated four times in a full set, and grew progressively more difficult. This motion also allowed her to wash out all the energies which conflicted with their training style.
“Will you be joining us?” Clan Mother Runa asked as Eerika finished this phase of her training.
Eerika nodded. Her small chest lifted with an unexpected level of strain. Despite the location she felt as if the training had been more effective and intense than a weeks’ worth in the courtyard her younger sister took.
Runa’s first daughter bowed once then said, “Of course.”
Once light faded each woman would retreat to a shared bath to wash off the residue. Soiled water was cast into the aqueduct for lesser clans to sort through. Many families treated the water similarly. By the time lake water reached poorer parts of town it was often filthy.
The bath itself was closer to a large spa. Ten people could easily fit into a location used only by three. Perhaps some of the servants or men dared touch this spot in the mornings. If they did, they were careful to cover up signs of trespassing.
“Elder sister, Clan Mother, how faired your day’s cultivation?” Eira asked politely. Eira was often the first to arrive, and last to leave. She was three years younger than Eerika, almost to the day.
“As well as can be expected. It is hard to find time for a truly strenuous session. Noon’s is often a busy time for household affairs,” Clan Mother Runa said while disrobing.
Despite seven children her body still looked trim. Age could only be blocked so far unless one reached new stages upon The Way. Most of her fitness was the result of daily exercise and diet. Where Clan Mother Runa showed small signs of dragging at forty, Eerika and Eira were supple and without wrinkles.
Steam started to rise up almost instantly as their bodies dropped in temperature. Channeling energies of fire then submerging in water was a long standing technique countering nastier side effects of the Solar’s Four Horses cultivation method. Stretches and stances held the fire down deeper and refined them one layer at a time, but that which could not be contained had to be washed away.
“Eerika was putting on quite the display,” Clan Mother Runa said. “Both her martial mastery and cultivation have clearly progressed.”
Eerika held her breath and said nothing. Instead, she grabbed a small cloth and started scrubbing at dry flakes of skin to remove them.
“We both wish to do you, and the Asger clan proud,” Eira said with a nod. At fifteen she displayed an almost viperous respect towards those above her in station.
Runa often reassured Eerika that all children of the Asger clan were committed to their household and maintaining its strength. Both daughters quarreled frequently. Their mother was no so blind as to miss that, any more than she could ignore the pain her sixth child went through being isolated. Runa lived by her own mother’s words, a soft heart will break a clan.
“Eerika, have you finished your letter of greetings to Young Lord Lire?” Their mother changed the subject.
“I have not found the proper words for our first exchange,” Eerika said.
“Your betrothal is important to the clan’s well being, and by all accounts he is strong, as was your father at that age,” Runa said. “Young Lord Lire can be a man worthy of you.”
“I do not wish to make a fool of us by sounding witless,” Eerika spoke but kept cleaning until skin showed an irritated pink. The dry spot that truly bothered her had long ago been removed.
“If you need assistance, perhaps I can offer my own pen,” Eira said.
“No. Let your sister handle this affair. It would do no good to let Young Lord Lire believe Eerika is someone she is not.”
Eerika sunk lower into the water and tried to count the minutes until her body would be ready to leave. Fresh liquid trickled down from the aqueduct siphoning into their waters. Eira chose the spot directly opposite the cooling waters, in order to stay warmer in the bath.
“Is it true Fell will be allowed to leave for a day?” Eira asked.
“Your father decided the Black Day would be the best time to test his progress.” Clan Mother Runa spoke with tightened cheeks.
“And Lady Sahi’s tokens? Does he really intend to give those to the guards?”
“Where did you hear of that?” Clan Mother Runa’s hand lifted out of the water quickly but the surface barely rippled. “No, never mind. If you know, then likely half the servants know, and likely other clans. Your brother can not use them with his nature, and yes, Fell is going to seek an exchange with Lady Hasi. This was not my idea, and I do not know which outcome might be better.”
Eira nodded but asked no further. Eerika felt startled, such news had not made its way to her at all. Once again the younger sister showed remarkable ability. This served as another venue in which the gap between them was obvious.
Her upcoming marriage was likely about getting rid of a useless child and making way for Eira’s rise. Gaining clan ties served as a secondary benefit, along with whatever else may have been exchanged for a lesser family to win a daughter from a greater one.
Eerika hated herself for such unkind thoughts but found like error in the reasoning. She cast glances towards the other women and once again wished she might have an area to be strong in, something proud and solely her own. Try as Eerika might, there were no good places to hide from her family. Exiting the bath required traveling past both women while suffering their judging stares.
“Is brother Fell really so dangerous?” Eerika asked in a moment of weakness.
Clan Mother Runa leaned backwards and water splashed. The motion made both daughters perk up in confusion. Disrupting the water showed how deeply the question bothered her.
“I had two brothers once, they died long before you were born, and I had been betrothed to your father for less than a month at that point. They were killed in war with the Region Lord across the northern mountains.” Clan Mother Runa stared upwards at the forming stars. They too were a source of strength for some cultivators, but their energy felt more cooling and gentle then the suns harsh rays.
“The war ended and their bodies came home in casket, while sons of lesser clans and commoner households came home in carts, or not at all. With our dead came a delegation from the northern clan.” Their mother shuddered briefly despite the water’s warmth. “I hated them. I hated their clothing ugly looked and flat faces. Each one spoke with a brutish accent.”
Their mother took a breath that would have easily drawn the attention of many men. Even in age she retained beauty. Though her hair was plain and brown, and formed waves at greater lengths, Runa still held the Clan Lord’s attention. Both daughters shifted slightly and stared upwards.
“My mother told me some years later, on her deathbed, that people, no matter their gender or methods will be affected by how we perceive them,” she spoke softly but the words were easy enough to hear. Any guards nearby, be it inside the house or on the walls other side, wisely kept their mouths shut. “First impressions, she warned, are the most dangerous. It caves a framework into our hearts on which every other moment is built.”
Eira nodded as if she understood. Eerika did not pretend in the slightest. Instead she focused simply on carving the words into her mind for reflection at a later date. Understanding came slower to the older daughter than she desired.
“I still find them ugly, flat, and brutish. Every time I see a delegation arrive, or a trader hawking their wares in the market I feel revolted,” their mother’s words were sour. “I’ve carried this hatred for nearly twenty years. Yet, in recent years they have done nothing but good for our region.”
“What about brother Fell?” Eira asked.
“Fell,” Runa sighed. “I can see my son as nothing but a frighteningly dangerous and lonely child searching for a place in the world. Lonely, because we must keep him safe and cannot approach him for fear of losing what strengths we have. Dangerous because he nearly killed your brother without even a moment of hesitation.”
Both siblings nodded. The historical event which nearly ended Colborn’s life had been embedded in their minds. Energy distortions disrupted their training that day, swirling all around the property. Guards had been upset, and father dropped his normal routine to rush over. At the center of it all they found one brother, bleeding from his eyes with a ghastly smile, and the other crying as his tethers to life unraveled.
“I wish had not seen those things, for they taint my perceptions and make monsters out of simple men. They remove any chance at good which might have occurred,” their mother said as both young girls shuddered. “As your grandmother warned me, I in turn warn you. We are made not only by what we ourselves do, but by how people perceive us.”
Both daughters said nothing. For once they agreed, seeing wisdom in keeping their mouths shut. Clan Mother Runa rarely spouted out moments from her past. Perhaps the heated waters or recent changes in the household had stirred something inside.
“Remember this Eerika, when you meet this future husband, or else how you first see him will forever color your time together.” Clan Mother Runa smiled and in that moment her age of nearly fifty showed through. “Try to see the good, and if not that, see strength, see loyalty and honesty, and give those traits in return. Do that, and you will find a man worthy of you.”
Eerika’s mouth hung open slightly as she tried to find clever words to say, but none came forth. Her eyes cast towards the younger female in hopes for a clever deflection or other assistant. Eira said nothing. Runa nodded then sighed.
“It seems I have already cooled enough for today. Tomorrow I will work harder to keep up with my daughters.” Clan Mother Runa then stepped out of the bath. Water barely rippled as she left to grab a fresh robe from the house wall nearby. In parting she reminded her daughters, “Remember not to fall asleep, and retain some warmth for the nights, especially you Eerika, soon you will need it.”
Clan Mother Runa, the mother of all six siblings, frequently reminded her daughters to always leave the bath before completely cooling down. There were other uses with the day’s lingering heat. Eerika and Eira would both nod as if they understood. They did, but both were sheltered maidens in regards to men.
Still, they knew Runa spoke of warming a man’s bed but used far less crude terms. Men were not a subject spoken of often. In this respect the Stone’s Hearth clan and Asger differed greatly.
Once their mother had traveled far enough, Eerika stood slowly then said, “I shall leave too, goodnight younger sister.” The older sibling stepped away from the cooling waters. Her body still held far more heat than normal but being alone in Eira’s presence felt uncomfortable.
“Goodnight sister,” Eira responded while laying her head back on the rocks.
For a moment Eerika paused to look at her younger sister. Weakness normally covered up by bravado showed through. Eira’s face flushed with red and eyes dropped. Perhaps their younger brother Fell was not the only one who felt a sense of isolation.
The elder sister nodded. Their family members were under a lot of pressure to perform well. If one didn’t wish to be married against their will then they could demonstrate enough martial and cultivation prowess to escape. Strength for the family came in many forms.
Perhaps Eira simply sought to carve her own path, as Eerika once had. The eldest sister walked off. Each step warmed the rocks and cooled her feet. Heat circulated to replace the portion being siphoned off by bare skin in night air. A thin robe went over both shoulders and Eerika made her way back to the small room she slept in.
That night, the statue still glowed with a bright light that reminded Eerika of the noonday sun. She loosened the robe slightly, dropped both legs into a wide stance, then pulled her fists back. Darkness passed while she exerted herself. Alluring progress proved difficult to disregard. Her body lost what little fluff remained until only muscle shone through. The routine continued throughout four days, until the Black Day’s morning.
That sunrise, sweat saturated her bedding and skin from overexposure to heat. It dripped down as she grunted, struggling to get out of the narrow bed. Her legs cramped horribly and a crunching sound could be heard when Eerika tried to stand.
“Ahhhhhghhh!” A loud shriek rang out from Eerika’s body. Bedding caught fire and quickly climbed up one of the walls. She weakly beat at the walls with her blanket, working rapidly to prevent their destruction. Red flames flickered and died before taking root.
She fell to the floor then tried to roll and there was another crack. Her legs were alight with uncontrolled flames that burned from the inside out. Air hissed while Eerika clutched wounded legs. She crawled out the door to reach a place where nothing about her might suffer damage.
Kirkwood, the brother who’s room nestled between her and Eira, practiced in the morning. He followed a training school tied to the Sunrise of a Man stance. Red hued eyes went wide as he took note of his sisters crawling form. Kirkwood rushed over.
“Elder sister!” He shouted while reaching for a bucket. Water siphoned from the aqueduct flowed throughout their compound. Soon he was back, splashing it against the flames.
Kirkwood brought the flames under control along with a household maid.
“What happened?” He asked Eerika rapidly while breathing heavily. Six laps to the water’s edge with a giant pale had drained him. Kirkwood followed a more mental path along The Way and lacked the physical sturdiness of his sisters.
Eerika’s head shook with refusal to answer. This would never have happened if she hadn’t become obsessed for days. While she sat hissing through clenched teeth, Fell was being introduced to two guards and given an important task by their father. This would be his first day of allowed freedom in years.
She prayed that her foolish desire to excel wouldn’t cause young Fell to be punished. Between gasps of pain her mind tried to remember the saying that gods would plead blindness and forgave all which happened on a Black Day.
Outside the walls of the Asgar clan holdings were tens of thousands of people. The city of Sol’s Heart was divided into three different sections. Each region belonged to different social groups. Poor were given space on the outskirts while those richer had a lakefront district. This did not mean the rich were surrounded by a layer of disguised squalor. Region soldiers were often sent to clear out an entire stretch of land so that those rich and affluent citizens of Sol’s Heart would never lay eyes on the poor. As such, even those desperate homeless rarely ventured to the southern edge of town.
Influential clans had residences along the water, granted by the Region Lord. Three such families held larger holdings which spread for miles and distorted the cities shape. Their properties might house thousands of the downtrodden, but instead were private due to their powerful, and often arrogant, families.
“Mother? That boy is on the roof again.” The youngest daughter of a small clan wore finery that lifted already growing assets into an alluring shape. She leaned out the third story window of their manor and stared across at a young man.
Those walking the pathway below could easily look up and see a young girl nearly spilling out of her tightly cinched top. Her mother hoped that such a dress might attract the eye of young nobles in higher families. The gambit paid off with both her older sisters in years gone by. Only one was successful married while the other found another, less proper way to survive.
“Show me you’ve been paying attention to my lessons. What name should you address me by in public?”
“Lady Iola, or Clan Mother of Shore’s Hearth.” the youngest daughter responded while giving an exaggerated curtsy. Almost immediately she turned back to the window and leaned out once more.
“Then to answer your question, direct your attentions elsewhere and ignore the young lord next door,” Lady Iola said.
Across the wall of their estate lay a fairly unused but wide stone path. Past that was an aqueduct which funneled water from the lakes edge further into Sol’s Heart. On the other side of running water lay a tall wall which had been carved with ornate decorations. One entrance had a stone bridge which went into a heavy double door. That passageway went to the Asger clan’s property and had not been opened once in six years. Their main door sat further to the south.
“But that boy’s up there every morning. He just sits, staring like a loon, then he bows. It’s so strange,” the young girl responded.
Noble families such as the Shore’s Hearth clan held only a small tract of land. Their city property traveled an eighth mile along the aqueduct. It was only one of many such holdings that served to buffer between larger families. The three great clans were too prideful to withstand being direct neighbors.
Many chose this path in hopes of witnessing the spilling treasures of her daughters, as they had at one time made less than casual glances at the middle aged woman. It served to increase their reputation, even if the cause was less than pure. Attentions lead to power of sorts.
“Mercy. I’ve told you to stop looking at the Asger family’s holdings. It’s not proper,” her mother said in with a slow voice. In pieces about her was a dress that had not been fully assembled.
Mercy’s mother, or as she was called in public, Lady Iola, wore the same style of clothes. Part of it was competition with the budding flower her daughter had become. There were other reasons as well, of course, but mostly jealousy. Their family had few who practiced The Way. As such, they were all equally torn down by times cruel march.
The youngest daughter turned. Her shoulders pulled back to lean on the windowsill which only served to highlight Mercy’s chest. She said, “But he’s my age, and I’ve never seen him in any classes. Shouldn’t all nobles of age be in the Region Master’s school?”
One of her fingers casually twirled towards the other property. The angle of their third floor living room allowed for a clearly visible view into the garden’s other side. A small house sat inside, and atop it a smaller boy stared upwards at the sky every morning.
“And?” Lady Iola asked.
“I only asked why he doesn’t show at class. The boy looks cute enough to contend with Prince Char and his friends, though this Asger boy rarely smiles,” the daughter responded with a shrug. Mercy’s cheek tucked back in a disapproving expression that every woman in the family had.
Lady Iola said nothing immediately and kept working at the dress. She enjoyed being a seamstress despite its toll. Each twist of needle wore on stiff fingers. Neither hand looked like the slender beauties they had once been. Such was the price of crafting clothes by hand. These works were creations of pure art, which was half the reason her house retained any nobility at all, that and ample charms coupled with slender waists. Beauty kept them noticed. It certainly wasn’t the work of a philandering husband whose attentions drifted as age had its way with Iola’s body.
“Their clan head can afford private tutors if they so desire.” The clan mother of Shores Heart spoke with a calmness her mind didn’t have. Seeing her third daughter displaying such charms without an ounce of self-awareness nearly caused her to twitch in irritation. Eventually the jealousy would pass, once Mercy had been married off to a proper husband. Then the house would be empty, and perhaps she could leave Sol’s Heart for greener pastures, or at least ones where Lady Iola could find a more attentive man to warm her bed at nights.
“Can we pay him a visit? He looks lonely and could use some cheer.” Mercy shook her front and smiled. The clan mother took a slow breath which disguised a sigh. Perhaps, at twelve, her daughter was not as ignorant about charming people as she hoped. Early maturity was dangerous, but that too could be used.
One did not have to be a lady at all times, and often men preferred it when a woman knew exactly when to drop the façade. The problem with each daughter had been showing them how to separate the two sides of a woman’s nature. In public one had to remain refined and dignified. Such front shaking served better in brothels and bedrooms rather than a nobles dining halls.
“No.” She tried to lead her daughter by deed and word. “It’s not our place to pay any heed to that garden. A lady does not step above her station unless invited.”
The next day Stone Hearth gardeners started creating a higher lettuce of vines to blot out their western neighbor across the aqueduct’s edge. This only increased Mercy’s intrigue, for something being hidden meant there was value in knowing. Both of her old sisters had explained this truth upon her twelfth birthday.
Lady Iola started looking for suitors which might keep the youngest of her daughter’s busy. Perhaps another outlet, a proper one of course, might reign in such idle curiosity. Most than one family around the city engaged in such actions, all striving for what they felt was best. Such plotting would keep her busy until more pleasurable activities could be pursued.
Across the way, another set of parents plotted out methods to deal with their children as well. Lady Iola had heard of some of the Asger clan’s plots, and counted herself lucky to only have three daughters. Sons only brought troubles, especially if the rumors were to be believed.
In a way, Fell was the least fortunate of them all. Fate created a lengthy noose around his neck. That excess rope threatened to strangle everyone who dared approach him, regardless of intent.