"Tilly, before you go out, keep this," Simila opened a small leather pouch and dropped a few silver coins in my hand.
"What's this?" I asked, puzzled. Why would I accept money from my maid...?
"It would have been strange if we didn't use most of the money your mother gave us for the shoes that we told her we had fitted and made. It would be improper for me to keep it."
"Ah, of course," I accepted the 3 silver coins and put them in the box in the second desk drawer where I kept some of the materials and trinkets I picked up over the years. I noticed as they dropped off my hand that one of them was different from the silver marks I usually see, the face of a different king than the usual Verston Mershunt II on its side.
Now that I accepted the money back from Simila, I wondered if I had to buy her a present or something to show appreciation for her honesty. I still didn't really understand the politics of beneath the stairs. And Simila wasn't exactly the usual maid either, which made it even more complicated.
And if I did need to get a present, how? Simila was always shadowing me, she didn't seem to have any free time or weekends. As far as I knew, she didn't have any family or friends she met either. Maybe I should just give her a few of the coins back and say they were hers?
I remembered mother once telling me in Olwick that you should show gratitude with a present though. Money was vulgar and implied the person you gave it to was no different from a servant who took your wages.
But Simila was a servant, so it was fine right?
I just closed the drawer and decided I could figure this out another time.
"I'll go take Cinder out then. I shouldn't be long."
"Enjoy your ride." Simila said, letting me go to another's supervision.
I went downstairs and met Saul in the kitchen. He was talking with the chef and putting a small bundle into his satchel. The whole kitchen smelled good, from the oatmeals and sausages cooking on the heavy 2 meter metal stove for the breakfasts upstairs.
"Can I have a bone?" I asked the chef who smiled and brought out a large sheep bone for me.
As I walked out the door to the yard, I had to duck under a couple of onion braids that were hanging right there. The onions were one of the first signs that the harvest season was beginning, one of the first vegetables to ripen.
I looked at the bone, as I walked behind Saul, remembering the story of Osbec that the lady, Phienna told me two days ago. Did the king there really have an army of skeletons? It would either have to be some elaborate ritual magic or a series of arrays or runes engraved on each one that keyed into an artefact of control.
I wasn't really sure if the latter was possible here though. Whatever the reason I wasn't able to make the heat array work should affect other complicated spell designs. The only hypothesis I could come up with was that curses had some different activation mechanism, but a control artefact couldn't rely on a curse.
A nuzzle on my I was greeted by Fafi who came up calmly to nuzzle me.
She was quite old now, rarely leaving the stables for too long. My heart always ached when I saw her here. It was already a full year since her owner Sir Barker had died here in Gristol.
I had spent a lot of time with Sir Barker and Fafi after I got him to help me with the metalwork for the heat array a few years back. He was a knight once, and a veteran under grandfather's banner in the war with almost Keiran 40 years ago.
He had then trained father in his youth and decided to stay with him when he left the capital. Perhaps I would have also chose to retire in peaceful Olwick if I were his age.
It suited him well too, allowing him to focus on hobbies in woodwork and handicrafts. He did some of the chores, had a small house in father's property and could spend time hunting with Fafi or carving as he pleased.
He hadn't seemed particularly keen on taking on an apprentice though, perhaps because he didn't consider himself a real journeyman even at carpentry. But he left many tools behind, his house in the woods and his dog.
Fafi's hair was somewhat stiff and matted, like the hairs on Cinder's brush that I could see hanging off a nail behind her, but I scratched her behind the ears and gave her the bone, which she wagged her tail over.
On the bright side, I suppose there wasn't really a better fate for a domestic animal than to live out their final years in peace and warmth. It was definitely a different life than the sheep and birds back home.
Saul returned bringing his horse between the stalls and the carriage I would ride this afternoon. The stablehand was following him with Cinder who was stomping on the ground, eager to be outside.
I waved Fafi away and pat Cinder on his long nose.
He snorted and shied away, even after 4 years, he still didn't seem to like getting pat on the head when I greeted him, even though he usually accepted it when I was putting him back. Weirdly though, he always pushed his nose towards me when I saw him, so I'll just continue doing my best to say hi and show him I care.
"Thanks Rinse," I told the stablehand who passed me the reigns, dyed red to match cinder's mane.
Cinder was young, and still not completely trained. He was my birthday present from father the year I turned 5. But even though we got him then, I continued practising on the pony, I was put on when I was 4 and then Sir Barker's old horse so that I could learn the ways to guide with just pressure from my legs and feel how the horse should respond.
Although Rinse now took care of Cinder, giving him hay and rubbing him down, I still went to help occasionally. Sir Barker always said you had to treat a horse like a squire. You demand their respect and obedience, never letting them push you around and telling them when they have to work harder. But you also feed them, tell them when they have done a good job and make sure you don't overwork them, unless its a matter of great urgency or life-and-death.
I had to make sure Cinder knew that I was his master and that he would get used to me before I even started riding him. I trained him with Sir Barker to allow me to hobble him, to stomp and rear and come to me when I whistle.
He was already saddled up, so I put my foot in the stirrup and kicked him with my heels, following Saul outside.
I saw Brendal as we passed by the training yard swinging his sword. We didn't stop there to run around in the yard though. Saul led us around the path through the trees to the side of the mansion and down the road to the gate.
We started riding through Seventhill, which was mostly just fences and trees from the road. We didn't ride on the main road that went from West Gate all the way into the sijony, but on the roads that skirted the mansions here.
The nicest thing about the ride was the smell of the pine that mixed with the ever-present smell of woodsmoke in the capital.
When we had gone some fair distance outside of Seventhill, Saul stopped ahead of me and then dismounted.
"Do you think this is a good spot?" He asked, pointing to a rocky outcrop.
He took out two ropes, looped at the end, and we hobbled Cinder and Pony, Saul's horse, given his name when Sir Barker picked him up from a field he was passing through to use as a packhorse years ago. He was a beautiful horse, a fully trained as a destrier. The name was an irony, perhaps, that the only pony they had at hand to carry their satchels would be him.
"Let's first spar, and then we can eat." Saul said, throwing me one of the wooden blades. "If you think you're going to fall, shout or slap your thigh so that I can help."
I got into position at the bottom of the outcrop, facing Saul who had climbed to the top. It was important not to always train in the yard where the footing was flat. Real battles happened in the field or the forests where there were more things to pay attention to.
Unfortunately, I hurt my toe almost immediately, as I stepped up to lunge and found my boot shoved between two unbudging stones.
"Head, arm!" Saul called out where he would have hit me but stayed in position, not actually striking as I tried to stand straight again. "If you trip, then fall back and regain your footing, or at least roll. You can't show your head like that, or you won't be allowed to keep it."
I tried to massage my foot through the leather boot, but it didn't do much good and I lost my balance trying to stand on one foot.
After a few exchanges, Saul decided we had trained enough for the morning and he opened up the satchel from where he pulled out the food from the kitchens.
"Did you speak to your father about inviting a friend?" Saul brought up a conversation we had had last time we came out. "It's not good for you to spend all your time in Gristol boxed up in your room like that."
"But I'm not," I said, while taking the sandwich he held out to me. "I'm out here with you, and I train with father other days and Alust always comes over on Majadie too. He's really interesting to talk to."
And now that I met Giacob and the orphans, I'd see them too, I added mentally, but I couldn't tell Saul that.
"Haah, it's not the same, Tilly. I know, because I only ever see you smile in Olwick. You get along with the villagers there, but you won't be able to forever."
I don't think Saul was making it up, but having a smile wasn't the most important thing. If anything, it was better to be in Gristol, where I could focus on improving myself and on reading.
"Plus, you really should get to know other peers of yours. You will grow further apart from the village children however much you may not want it. Perhaps you can take on Crion like your father did me. He could become a knight still, though he needs to put more time into his training. You should lead him by example."
"Achoo!" I sneezed as I got the taste of pepper from the up my nose. I liked the lamb ham and the slightly sweet milk bread, but I should ask the chef to put less pepper and butter. I always forgot though, since I usually put together my own breakfasts at the table in the living room.
"So? You heard me right," Saul reminded me to respond to him.
"Mmh, I'll try," I mumbled.
"And you'll talk to your father?"
"Okay. I suppose meeting more of the family can't be that bad. Simila will protect me if they try to kidnap me."
I heard Saul sigh again but he thankfully let off the topic. It's not that I was actively trying to avoid making friends with other noble children, but most of them were either serious and wimpy like Pricel or aggressive and prideful like Geran. There wasn't really much of a middle ground.
Most crucially though, half of the sijony was out for my head and I didn't want to give them the pleasure.
We crossed over a small but elegant stone bridge on the way back, looping around the woods over a ravine. You couldn't see much from here, but the ravine would widen out to the forest below where the Tachys was flowing towards us from the North before it curved West around the city.
Then we were soon back in Seventhill and I was putting Cinder back in his stall.
"We're heading to the Sijon's house, Vis," He called to the older Vis who was now acting as our coachman.
Father closed the door and sat down beside me as we began to rumble off.
I didn't pay much attention to the city as we went through the gate and up to Lookout. Father was quiet and the atmosphere in the carriage was heavy, so I just kept my head down.
I changed that though, tried to push my shoulders down, bring my chin in and look forward, with some confidence.
It was Sir Barker who taught me that too. Knights and quirios have to keep their dignity and posture. If you look guilty, you'll be judged guilty. If you look weak, you'll be pushed around.
Sir Barker was not an aristocrat and didn't put on any airs, but he was manly and strong, even in the last years of his life. He might not have been a mage as my imagination had dressed him up to be in my youth. But he was still a role model and I would not let grandfather do me or Sir Barker's memory any shame as we went to hear what had to say.