"Maryiz, he's not responding. Do you think I should slap him?"
"Do it and answer to me, Casmiref."
Defi only faintly heard his teachers' conversation. He could not believe it. His father was not his father and, Defi not his son, had arranged to get his Trial scores revoked.
His father had no plans to ever announce Defi as his son, to present him to the court of Rimet.
Warmly comforting hands, slightly rough with the calluses of the scholar, cupped his cheeks. "Little one, listen. I was born to the name of Rimet. And I can already say that your coward of a father lied."
Defi blinked to awareness, because it was his mentor speaking. What was she saying?
The lecturer Maryiz smiled at the life flickering back into the boy's eyes. "I was born to the name of Rimet," she said again. "And do you not see?"
He stared at her. She stared back, expectantly. His eyes roamed her aged face a long while, before he caught her meaning.
They had the same nose.
His eyes widened and sharpened. The same nose, the same shape of the lips, and the ears…he lifted trembling hands to expose more of her ears…yes, the same ears.
His hands dropped, and tears fell down his cheeks. One of the foundations of his life still stood, but what was it worth when his own father did not wish to acknowledge him as a son?
He tried to smile for her, this unknown relative who had guided the years of Defi's education sincerely.
"Hush," she said. "We do not force composure for family."
He cried harder. If that was true then he never had any family since his mother died, for he had never felt less himself than in the presence of his father.
She held him until he raised his head, tears spent. He spoke, choked out the words. "After this, you will not be able to claim me as kin."
His name would be taken from him, and his place in the family. His father was powerful, and his word was the law of Rimet.
Maryiz shook her head. "I claimed you when you became my apprentice, and your father has no say in what apprentices I may take, commoner or noble."
"I thank you for it, grandmother. But I will not have you waste the best years of your life on a conflict against the lord."
She sighed. "Am I not the adult?"
"You are the person with more to lose than I."
He knew she had other apprentices, and her work in the Church was important. She was not just a lecturer in the learning halls. If she went against the lord of Rimet, then all she had worked for would be affected.
Her grip on him tightened. "You call me grandmother, then ask me not to act to defend my grandson from injustice committed against him?"
He could not sway her, he realized in dismay. His father was a ruthless man. No matter the influence Maryiz had, he was the lord of the lands.
He sought Casmiref's burning gaze, pleading. "To not act is also to act."
The old man twitched, then smirked darkly. "As you say, young one. What do you intend to do?"
Defi closed his eyes, opened them with regret. He would be hounded his whole life. His father would not be content to let him fall to the farmer caste or to even lower castes.
In entering the Trials he had defied the lord of Rimet, and that would not be forgiven.
After this, he would be a stain on the name of Rimet, and the only way to wash out such a stain would be death.
There was only one thing to do. "I must leave."
"A logical answer, and a viable solution."
"Casmiref!" There was a gasp of betrayal in the old woman's voice.
Her old friend stayed silent, standing by his words.
Then she too, closed her eyes in pain.
"You will not be happy here," she said, more to herself than to Defi. She opened her eyes. "You must hurry then, before the news gets out. You only have until late morning tomorrow at the earliest."
His father would use rumors. The fact that his coloring and eyes were all his snowlander-blooded mother's would seal the lies. Of all his siblings, he was the one with the most different looks, and the only one with the slightly paler skin and the dark eyes not native to Ontrea.
Ontrea where people had eyes that shone as jewels and skin that shone as gold, was the commonly heard refrain of other nations.
Late morning tomorrow, that was the time he was running against.
He looked around. They were in one of the abandoned rooms on the top level of the Church. It was likely the room the hidden stair was supposed to access. He hadn't even known he was moved.
Deep golden red sunlight threw dark shadows inward from the outside, the patterns of the carved windows dancing darkly against the walls and floors.
The sun was already setting.
There was little time to prepare.
A thought came to him. "Won't Lecturer Ivarof be looking for us?"
Casmiref chortled, unconcerned. "The man is sneakier than I thought."
Maryiz shook her head. "Ivarof is a man of propriety. The chances that he would mistakenly schedule three meetings that overlap is negligible."
The lecturer had planned for them to hear? Defi did not know whether to thank the man or curse him.
"I'll need coin," he turned his thoughts from his conflicted heart to more productive matters. "The lease on the farm was transferred to my name. I can sell it."
He'll have to decide what to leave behind and what to take with him as well. And then what to do with the slaves on the farm. No, it was better not to tell them anything. They would have the protection of innocence.
"Meet me tomorrow. I'll have a buyer for you." Maryiz said it without hesitation.
"No, lecturer. I have already taken too much of your goodwill."
She huffed. "Nonsense. The patriarch of a family is its protector. If he can do this to one of his sons, do you think the other branches of the family would rest easy? Rimet is only the name of the ruling branch. Ten names are ministers, ten names are generals, ten names are given to the church. The family has many branches, and it is more than the name of Rimet."
Defi smiled weakly, knelt before her. "Do not defy the lord for me, grandmother. I ask this of you, I beg it."
She might be the only one of his blood who was willing to claim him; he would not put her in his father's sights.
She patted his cheek. "Worry not about me. I will not challenge the lord directly. He will not see me."
Her face wore resolution like armor and Defi would not move her. His shoulders slumped. "Be careful. Perhaps I shouldn't leave? I would --"
She smiled, and it was like the edge of a blade suddenly bared in moonlight. "Do not stay for us, young one. We are old, and like our whims. The lord is shrewd and cunning, but do you think we survived so long because we are soft? Weakness kills in our family, child. Worry not."
Casmiref leaned forward, eyes twinkling. "Why does one defy a patriarch, one of the most powerful men in the kingdom? For profit and entertainment, of course!"
Maryiz stifled a laugh, and Defi had a dreadful thought.
The people that taught in the church Halls were all insane.
Defi jumped off Pale, his riding ox, and knocked on the door of the small house. He thanked providence that Garun had chosen to live nearby, away from the slave town. There were no witnesses.
"My lord," Samti's eyes widened when the door opened to reveal who was outside. She bowed.
"Pack all that is important," he said to Garun's wife without introduction. "Do it secretly and be ready to leave tomorrow before dawn."
"My lord." Her back straightened and her eyes were suddenly of steel. There was a question in her words, nearly a demand. Not a tone the average slave would take before her masters.
His lips twitched, despite the despair roiling in his heart. Of course Garun would marry someone like her.
"By noon tomorrow, the news that I am not of the lord of Rimet's line would have spread across the capital city. Garun is known to be Mother's friend. You must leave this place quickly."
Her gaze sparked. "My lord. You are leaving?"
"We are coming with you."
He opened his mouth to deter her.
"My husband would agree with me."
He closed his mouth. Garun had a way of being persuasive.
"My lord, you cannot leave alone."
"You have a child," he said, his final argument.
"All the more reason."
He shook his head, swallowed to wet his throat. "I am going beyond the Gate."
It was a thought he had not even voiced to his teachers. It was too daunting a concept. Even he could not believe he'd said it.
But she stared at him, this slave, this woman who had endured much much more than he likely ever could. "We will be ready in the morning, my lord."
Sure enough, when the next morning dawned, he found them waiting at his door.
He stared at Garun silently, a tactic he had seen his father employ many times to intimidate people into explanations. Unfortunately, it did not work this time.
The man smiled with equanimity. "Young lord, I hope you are well rested. We have long to journey this morn."
Defi would be lying if he said he did not want the company.
The thought of passing through the Gate to the Otherworld was terrifying. "It is not the safest on the other side."
"It will be fine. I was born in a village just outside Ascharon, and lived there until my thirties. The dangers beyond the Gate, I remember."
Defi choked in surprise. "Outsiders are not allowed past the Gate-markets."
"All outsiders but slaves."
He stared at the man, then nodded once. In this, at least, he was certain of his actions. He would return Garun home, with his wife and daughter.
It was something he could do for the man that had not abandoned him when his rage nearly destroyed the man's livelihood.
He caught up the travel pack, settling the straps on his shoulders. The few things he could not bear to go without were already lashed to Pale's sides in bags and wooden chests.
Garun had somehow found a donkey upon which sat his family.
He shook his head. Garun was the farm overseer, and in charge of the rest of the slaves. Defi should not be surprised that the man had his own transportation.
Samti peered at him with amber eyes, their child, only months old, cradled to her chest.
Defi smiled resignedly at her. They set out to the city.
He set his eyes upon the land and found that he would regret to leave it. It was only a piece of land, not even truly belonging to him.
The memories, he could take with him anywhere.
Garun neared, almost hesitant, his voice low. "Young lord, I must tell you. There is no manner in which your mother would dishonor you or her husband."
"I know. But my father will throw me away just the same."
"Young lord, such a father is unworthy of such a son."
He was silent a moment. "Do not say such things, Garun."
"Yes, of course, young lord."
They carried on in silence.
In sight of the city, the sun now cleared the tops of the pale mountains in the east, Defi spoke. "Go ahead. There are arrangements I must yet make. If I do not catch you by mid-morning, then go through the Gate without me. Wait one day in the mining town before leaving."
Garun contemplated. "There is a small village just past the mining town, if I recall. It would be safer to wait there. No one would speak of foreigners there."
That sounded fine. He gave Garun the token that allowed slaves to pass the Gate and return. In addition, a pouch of silver coin.
Garun took both grimly. "I will see you later, young lord."
It was a promise.
Defi turned Pale toward the Church and clicked his tongue. This early in the morning, no respectable noble was on the streets. But there was always the chance of being recognized.
He lifted his hood. Yesterday, he would never have worn such a thing.
But this morn, he had left most of his clothes behind, his sword, and the tall regal hat that proclaimed his status to the world.
There was no need for them now.
He paused when Maryiz opened the door to Casmiref's house, because he did not know his teachers were so intimate. He did not want to know.
Casmiref saw his surprise.
"I know," he grumbled. "All those years ago she turned down my suit, even breaking the contract between our families, and now she acts like a wife?" He patted Defi on the shoulder. "Women, eh?"
"Stop corrupting him, Casmiref, and bring him here."
Maryiz sat on a cushion across from an elderly man with pronounced Rimet features, the long face and the bright eyes, the curling black hair still fighting against the grey. Defi knelt beside Maryiz and bowed.
"You have the papers?"
Defi bowed again, silent.
Maryiz snorted in amusement. "This is Janef, the overseer of the family lands. Janef, my own Desislaf."
The man looked amused. "Greetings, young one."
"And to you, elder." Defi did not show his shock. He was the son of the lord and had never even met the overseer of the Rimet personal lands. How high in the family hierarchy was Maryiz?
He put his lease papers on the low table. The man went through them, focused and sharp. He nodded, and pulled out a few pages from a box near him.
"These are agreements indicating you sold the lease back to the family, one week ago, in preparation for your entry into the Trials. You only need sign them."
Defi read them carefully. Then read them again. He sighed at himself when he paged through the papers a third time.
There was no problem with the agreement. The terms were clear, there were no hidden clauses, and the compensation was acceptable for a farm the size of Defi's.
It was...just days ago, he was planning on expanding this farm - his mother's farm.
He took a breath and picked up the brush. There was no room here for sentimentality.
He signed the papers, pressed his personal ebony seal into the wax at the bottom of the agreement.
It was done.
He felt like he had signed away more than land.
Janef silently collected the papers and bowed to them. "Aunt, I have been blessed once more by your presence, a thing I had hoped for since the day you left behind the name. Young one, I hope your venture goes well."
He left behind a pouch of coin.
Defi looked at Maryiz. "You left of your own accord?"
To be born to the name of Rimet was to be a child or grandchild of the lord. It was prestige of the highest order. To leave the name was to be relegated into the branch families, a position that Defi cannot even claim now.
"She always says she was driven into a corner," grumped Casmiref. "Do I look like someone who would be so desperate?"
"Old history," Maryiz waved away, but her eyes softened when she caught Defi's uncomprehending look.
"I was in love," she explained. "A love that took the whole of me, a love that I could not leave behind."
"Fortunately she was contracted to me."
"I have never been more fortunate," was the old woman's dry retort.
She turned back to Defi. "This old grump is really too soft-hearted, and allowed me to break the contract. My mother raged and my father took away my name."
"Does it get better?" The gaping hole in the totality of what he once was. How does one ever come to terms with it?
"You get used to it. You find other people to fill the gap. Family is not only the name, child, not even only the blood." She took his hand, met his eyes. "This situation is no fault of yours. I acted, fully cognizant of the consequences. My father gained respect for his act. My child, you will lose your name and place. But for this act, your father even now loses respect within the family."
It soothed some of the rage in him, but not enough.
Not enough to stay, not enough to forgive.
He bowed low to his two teachers. "I have been honored by your regard all these years, and deeply apologize that I cannot return the kindness that you have bestowed on me. Forgive me this dishonor, you who have been teachers of this unworthy one, for I take my leave upon this day."
"I have a duty to my students," Casmiref said, after a stunned silence. "There is no debt."
He turned his back on them and left.
"He does not like goodbyes," Maryiz scoffed fondly at the old man. She led Defi to the door. "You will honor me by seeking your own happiness, do you understand? A happiness that belongs to you and no one else."
He met her eyes. "I have a request."
She listened until the end.
"You will have it," she said without hesitation.
On the road out of the city, contemplating the cool morning sun leaping between dewdrops, he mulled over her words.
A happiness that belonged only to him…
When was the last time he had that?
The words followed Defi out of his world and past the Gate, into another world.
Hi, this is Jin Daoran. If you see this work on other sites, know that I post exclusively on Webnovel. If you like the story, please support the author by voting on webnovel.com.
I had thought to place Defi's eldest brother and sister in this chapter, in a mood opposite that of Casmiref and Maryiz, but since this story is written as an escape from the gore I've been reading lately and the depressed state of the real world, I didn't want to make it too grim.
This's an experimental test for reading assistance in case.
We highly recommend you to enjoy the beauty of the original words.