"One, and two, and three, and OUCH!"
"You just trod on my foot, you clumsy cow!"
"Oi!" Indignantly, I let go of my brother's hands and proceeded to kick him in the shin. I had presumed I was wearing slippers, but it turned out I had left my hiking boots on when I had returned from my morning walk around the gardens when Noah let out a yelp of pain and began hopping on his uninjured foot, clutching his foot and shin simultaneously. Oh well, he had it coming. "You said you wouldn't insult me if I went wrong!"
"I said if you went wrong, not if you trampled on me mid-dance like a drunken centaur!" He raised his hands in surrender and hurriedly back away when I raised my foot again. "No! No, you'll break my toes in those monster shoes!"
"Fine." Somewhat reluctantly, I lowered my foot back to the ground, noticing the sigh of relief that Noah tried to conceal. "Sit on the bed and I'll check your foot."
Limping the short distance to my bed, Noah took a seat and, wincing as he did so, pulled off his shoe and sock. Kneeling down, I inspected his toes, realising with a hint of inward sheepishness that I had indeed managed to give him quite a nasty bruise.
Evidently, Noah had spotted it too. "Look what you've done! You're such a vicious girl."
I knew he was just trying to wind me up now, in his good-natured way, so I stuck my tongue out at him and got to my feet as he replaced his footwear. "Look, I'm not trying to say 'I told you so', but... I told you this was a bad idea! I hate dances. You know that. No matter how many hours you spend attempting to get me to get the hang of this, I'm not going to be able to do it. You might as well just go off and start chasing the girls you're desperate to dance with now, to save you time when it comes to the actual evening."
"Yes, but Hey, I don't chase girls." Noah paused to look suitably indignant before carrying on. "There's no 'I'm not going because I don't want to' about this, Sara. It's not just a dance, Mum and Dad might be able to make some important trade connections there. We need to make a good impression too."
"Yeah, yeah." I knew he was right. Flopping into a sitting position on the bed next to him, I studied him absently out of the corner of my eye. My brother was going to make a good manager for our family's business when it was his turn to take over, I could see that. He was twenty-two now, four years older than me, but had still retained a tiny hint of his teenage gangliness, accompanied by unruly warm brown hair that permanently flopped into his hazel eyes, and a warm smile that made anyone who came across him instantly take a liking to him. He looked trustworthy; and he was. As well as being a genuinely nice person, he was skilled with mathematics and had a mind for business, but he was down-to-earth as well. Our parents were often attempting to not-so-subtly hint that he would make the perfect husband for one lucky girl some day and soon, I could tell they hoped but he would always change the subject with a slightly red face whenever it came up in conversation. Noah might have been mature, but I could tell he wasn't ready to settle down just yet.
I, on the other hand, was hardly the perfect heir to a powerful noble family. For a start, as my mother often reminded me with badly hidden disappointment, I looked more like a street kid, with my untameable hair, which not only didn't seem to be able to decide whether it was blonde or brown, but was also somewhere between straight and curly with some frizz added in, and entirely resistant to brushing (she didn't seem to consider that that was hardly my fault). Added into the mix were a dusting of freckles and slightly tanned skin from where I spent so much time wandering around outdoors when I should have been in my bedroom like other good little noble girls trying on dresses and keeping my perfect porcelain skin tone, or whatever it is they do (OK, so yes, that was my fault). Not to mention my favourite hiking boots, which my parents hated, but which spent most of their time glued to my feet, and an intense dislike for dresses, and voila, you have Saralynne Redfern, Non-Ideal Daughter of a Noble Trading Family. One of my brother's favourite remarks was, "Every noble family needs a Saralynne." I think he was complimenting me by hinting that I add some interest to tedious situations, but I could never entirely tell, so I usually went for the safe bet of kicking him regardless of what he said to me.
"I hope they're not nominating me as spokesperson for that conversation they want to start up with the Cansons." I drifted out of my momentary daydream to realise that Noah was speaking to me, now lying back on the bed with his arms folded across his chest and an expression of mild dread on his face. "Yeah, I'm getting the hang of how to run the business. But I don't have a clue how to suddenly come up with 'Hey, you're a rich family, start trading with us so we can make lots of money off of you.'"
"Erm, I think you have to have a little more tact than that when it comes to it, but you're getting there," I informed him with a teasing grin.
"Really. You think?" Noah made a face at me and sat up, pushing his fringe out of his face as he did so; it fell right back into place as always. I spent a lot of time wondering why he bothered. "Ugh. I can't talk to people. That's your strength."
I thought for a moment, biting my lip in consideration. I supposed he was right; while he was mature, level-headed and smart, he had never been amazing at speaking to people, even as a small child. Whenever our parents hired a new babysitter for us I would be the first to ask them to play with me and start chatting away about nothing while Noah would take his toys into a corner and usually stay there until our parents returned home again. He had explained to me that he had been the same at school, daydreaming at his desk instead of contributing to his lessons, though he had never failed a subject (I noticed that one thing my parents always failed to mention to any new tutors I had was a certain history exam I had retaken three times and failed three times). It wasn't that he was overly shy, he was just very conscious of the position he had to fill, the responsibility that lay ahead of him, and I knew that he was worried he wouldn't be able to fulfil it as well as Mum and Dad wanted him to.
"You'll be great." I gave him a reassuring smile, which, hesitantly, he returned, though I could still see the hint of concern that lingered on his face. Getting to my feet, I kicked off my boots and shoved them aside, before holding my hands out for him to take. "Now come on, Sir Redfern, you need to fulfil your essential duty of teaching your entirely uncoordinated little sister how to dance."
Half an hour later, Noah was nursing not one but four bruised toes, both of us having discovered not only that despite being reasonably skinny I was heavy enough to cause damage without my hiking boots on, but also that there was no way I was going to get the hang of dancing before the weekend unless a friendly god decided to intervene and grant us a miracle.
"I pity your future husband, that's all I can say," the prone form that was Noah groaned from the bed, where he had taken up position after I had trod on his foot for the fourth time and declined to get up again. "He'll permanently have two broken feet."
"Yeah, well, I don't have to worry about that for a while, thankfully." I grinned, then glanced up at the sound of a faint, hesitant knock on my bedroom door. "Come in."
A moment's pause, and then the door swung open a little way to admit Cahren, and I felt my face instantly light up at the sight of him. Cahren was one of our family's many servants I still didn't think we needed as many as my parents continued to recruit, but I didn't have much say in it and the only one I had actually chosen myself. I didn't like the phrase 'chosen', since it made him sound like an object that had taken my eye, but as it was, when I came across him, that was basically what he had been being sold as.
On a summer's day a couple of years ago our father had sent Noah and I down into the city with a couple of guards with our family being so close to the monarchy you can never be too careful to meet with a new contact who had just delivered some goods for us via boat. It wasn't an essential visit, simply a courtesy one, to ensure the goods had arrived in a satisfactory condition and to greet a new associate to Redfern Trading. Since our family gathered and supplied a huge amount of materials and food products to many different companies and also to the royal family itself, we didn't particularly want the average passer-by on the street to realise the company we were a part of and therefore work out just how much we would be worth if they decided, for example, to try their luck taking one of us hostage or blackmailing us, so meetings with new clients were usually quietly organised and low-key. On the way towards the port we had had to pass through the poorer quarter of the city, where neat wood and stone buildings fell back to make way for ramshackle houses and suspicious looking shops with wonky roofs and plaster peeling from the walls in huge chunks. Noah had attempted to put his arm around me and shield me from any suspicious glances from the inhabitants of the area, but he hadn't been able to stop me from looking around me with curiosity, nor from noticing just what was going on in a side street we were passing.
Officially, the slave trade had been abolished. Realistically, of course, down in the slums and the broken parts of the city where all that people had left to trade with were lives, it wasn't. Even at sixteen I had realised this, and when I had happened to glance down that side street and see the terrified boy standing in front of a crowd of people bidding to take his life for their own, I had made a crazy, split-second decision, broken away from Noah and dashed down that street, heedless of my own safety. Before anyone in the crowd had a chance to react before I yelled that I would buy him, that I had the money regardless of the price not even considering that of course the seller would hike the price up upon discovery that I was a noble and then, when Noah managed to catch up with me, panicking and shouting, I would have none of it when he said there was no way we were buying a slave off the streets. But by then I had already seen the glimmer of hope in that boy's eyes, at the possibility of being taken away from all this, and I couldn't bear to see it fade. I had begged, cried and make countless promises until Noah had finally given in and, with an exasperated remark about how much trouble he was going to be in, paid up. I knew that not only would I be made to regret this because of what I had done, but also because, judging by the pointed ears of our new purchase, he was half-human and half-elf. And, as is the common view among the top ranks of society and one that I vehemently protested against our parents viewed anything that wasn't entirely human as a lower species.
We had later discovered that our newly acquired servant there would be no slaves in our house, and I was determined that he would be treated fairly and paid well was completely mute. He had clung onto me with one dirty hand all the way back to our home, and when he hadn't said a word we had simply presumed he was frightened and would talk in his own time, but later, when he had emerged newly clean from the bathroom with a new shirt on that had a lower collar than his old one, I had seen for the first time the vicious scars across his throat where his previous owner had had his vocal chords torn out. From that day forward I had sworn that no one would lay a finger on him again. Eventually, finally, I had won my parents round, once I had shown them how well Cahren he had clumsily written down his name for me when I had asked him for it; I discovered later it was the only thing he could write worked, and how we had managed to create a rudimentary form of communication between me, him and Noah, they reluctantly allowed him to stay, though I could tell they were still far from happy about it.
Noah referred to our acquisition of Cahren as the perfect example of my pigheadedness and spur-of-the-moment stupidity. I preferred to think of it as one of the best things I had ever done - looking back, no, it hadn't been very clever, but I knew I would easily have done it again.
Cahren gave me a smile of greeting from the doorway and then glanced over at Noah, who had returned to what could be called a sitting position, his hair sticking up in every direction. His hands flew in a series of signals that we had been seeing a lot lately; Noah was wanted downstairs to greet a new client and begin organising a shipment of goods. With an aggrieved groan Noah murmured a thanks for the message, slid off of the bed and headed for the door, swerving around Cahren and vanishing into the hallway. I allowed myself an amused smile at the sound of his weary, thudding footsteps descending the stairs, though I couldn't help but admire my brother for working so hard to keep our family's business running.
I knew I didn't contribute much, but our parents were constantly reminding me that I would get my chance in the future. To be honest I wasn't particularly looking forward to it; I was happy with the way things were now, when I still had the freedom to come and go as I liked, and even though it was frowned upon, I could still make my escapes to the outdoors if even the walls of our huge house felt too confining, as they often did for me. Our parents were the kind of people who thrived on business, on success, and to some degree, Noah was too. He wasn't greedy or money-driven; but he worked hard and this was where he would be successful, become the person he was meant to be. It just wasn't for me.
Apparently I had allowed an anxious expression to cross my face, because Cahren hesitantly headed across the room and sat down next to me on the bed, softly tapping the back of my hand with one finger in a gesture that I had come to learn meant Are you OK? Not long after he had come to live with us, I had explained that he needed to have no qualms about starting 'conversations' with me uninvited, or touching my hand if he wanted to, whereas my parents would probably have had a fit if one of the servants had attempted to do it to them.
"I'm alright." I gave him a reassuring smile, and after a pause the same expression flitted across his pale face. Despite being only sixteen years old thus only fourteen when he had been sold to me Cahren possessed maturity and a level of kindness beyond his years, not to mention beyond what I had expected of someone who had been treated how he had for so long. He flinched if someone near to him made a fast move, obviously in anticipation of being struck, so it made me furious simply thinking of what could have been done to him in the past. My parents were constantly telling me that he was too nervous, too jittery, and also subtly hinted that he looked untidy, while I thought his unruly pale turquoise hair, which fell to his shoulders, was rather cute. I didn't have much say in how my family ran our company or our home, but once I dedicated myself to someone or something, it became my first priority. Nobody was going to treat Cahren badly or even raise their voice to him again if I had any say in it. "I'm just thinking about the future."
Cahren paused, then signed in his rudimentary way, You will have a good future. You're a good person.
Surprised, I felt a faint blush rise to my face, not entirely sure of what to say. Eventually, I managed, "I don't suppose you could do me a favour?" When Cahren nodded eagerly, always willing to be of assistance, I slid off of the bed and knelt down next to it, sliding out from beneath it a small box. Inside was a tattered journal I had had for years, the leather of the cover fading and becoming threadbare, the pages stuffed to their maximum capacity with memories I had collected. In here were pressed flowers, photographs my parents had been feeling particularly generous after a successful deal around the time of my last birthday and had decided to buy me the latest development of camera equipment that had been brought out; I still couldn't quite believe my luck and even pieces of fabric from old clothes I had had to throw away. Among these treasures which would probably have looked like scraps to anyone else were drawings I had sketched and notes I had scribbled down, memos, little poems (which I have to admit weren't very good), and sometimes just rough descriptions of a landscape or a sunset I had seen and wanted to remember. There was even a drawing of Noah somewhere, which, admittedly, I was rather pleased with.
"I have a picture of everyone and everything in here, but you," I informed Cahren, clambering back up onto the bed, crossing my legs and opening the book in my lap as I grabbed a pencil from the bedside table. "I really need something to take my mind off this bloody dance on Skyday or I'm going to go mad. I don't suppose you could model for me for a little while?"