Somehow the male in front of her made her want to go back inside and clean her brother’s sweaty clothes.
His near-black eyes bore into her with an unnatural amount of hate and disgust, his lips stuck in a perpetual frown no matter what the other females in the ring tried to do to lighten his mood. Every word that left his mouth was coated in disdain and a putrid amount of judgment.
He walked the length of muddy, bloody ground, his eyes on the sparse amount of females who had the guts to show up for a training session, wrestling messily but without vigor.
Mud covered their wings, a disgraceful act for a female in itself. Their hair was tied up in tight braids swirled around their heads; another unholy act for those females who left their home.
The trainer, Commander Leorin, did nothing to correct any of their postures or tell them how their movements could quickly end with their arms broken and possibly snapped necks.
That, for one reason, was why Esophira stayed hovering by the fraying rope barrier, her arms crossed, her chin lowered down to her chest. Thankfully, her display of meekness had kept Commander Leorin’s eyes mostly off of her save for his wandering glances that she knew never meant anything good.
“Don’t leave yourself open,” the Commander barked at two skin-and-bone females tumbling together farthest away from her. One of them yelped when the other slapped an open-palmed hand onto the thinnest part of her wing. She shimmied away, tears streaming down her face. The other female leaned back, spewing apologies.
“I warned you, you wench,” he grumbled, turning away from them, not seeming sorry at all.
It was no secret that the High Lord and the General were pushing for the females to get at least some training, but with someone like Commander Leorin doing all of it, it was as helpful as leaving them to their daily work. If anything, it made it worse. It made the females think they knew something when, in fact, they knew absolutely nothing. That could be deadly.
He turned his imperious gaze away from the two other fighting groups to look up at Esophina. Some of the hardness in his dark eyes retreated, replaced by a softness.
So this male wasn’t the absolute worst. And by that, she meant he didn’t hate every female, only the ones who disobeyed.
“What’s your name?” he asked as he approached, his voice softening a fraction, his leathery wings flaring behind him in a show of his masculinity and the fact that they were slightly wider than average.
“Esophina, sir,” she said, raising her eyes to his before she lowered them back to the ground in front of her. There was a fleck of blood and a…tooth? Mother, were they trying to scare them? That was a stupid question to ask, of course, they were trying to scare them.
“Who’s your father, brother?” he asked, coming to stand beside her, his pure silky black hair gleaming in the dim light coming in from the open cliff-face many yards away.
“Alder and Verrin, sir,” she said, keep her voice quiet and low. The moment she spoke up or acted like anything other than the quiet and compliant female he thought she was, he wouldn’t be acting this politely.
“Oh, Commander Alder, good soldier. His son ain’t half bad either,” he said, and she kept her head down. She knew he didn’t want her to speak, so she didn’t.
“If the rumors are true, you don’t have a husband quite yet,”
“No, sir, I don’t,” she said, and toed the mud in front of her then noticed the shininess of the black leather of her boots and stopped. She’d spent all morning shining them.
“Is there any reason why?” he asked, and ducked down to catch her eye. She followed his eyes up, forcing herself to keep her face neutral as she looked into those depthless eyes. They were so… emotionless and blank. She could never imagine herself staring into eyes like that and finding love.
“None that I’m aware of, sir,” she said, and lowered her eyes to his leathered chest, letting her eyes trail the scale-like formation of it. “Other than my looks, which my father often reminds me are less than desirable.”
She allowed that small truth to come through. While her brother often told her that she looked better than the kind female their father was thinking of betrothing him to, her father often told her bluntly that it would be a miracle if she ever got married.
“He couldn’t be more wrong,” he said, reaching forward to lift her chin with a finger. Everything in her was screaming to back away, but she knew better. This was a commander, a highly regarded one at that. If she were to do anything to disrespect him, she would be dishonoring her whole dynasty. “They are very much desirable,”
She guessed that was his way of flirting her, calling her beautiful.
“Thank you, sir,” she said, not fighting the blush that crept onto her cheeks. It was more out of embarrassment than anything else, because walking down the packed-dirt road was her elder brother Verrin, a wild grin on his face. His light-brown hair was darkened with sweat, the fronts of it curling around his forehead.
“I would bet a years’ salary that that dark hair of yours is delightful when it's not all tangled up.” He said, taking his hand away from her chin, reaching to grab a tiny wisp to wrap it around his finger. She tried not to shiver when the rough skin of his knuckles brushed up against her neck.
“Esophina!” her brother’s voice called out, harsher than it normally was. Instantly, the Commander pulled his hand away, but took it slowly. She would have to thank him for saving her later.
“I guess I’ll have to let you go,” he said, his eyes wandering the planes of her face, stopping and staying on her lips that she resisted the urge to lick. Those black eyes lifted back up to her eyes. “I look forward to seeing you around,”
He turned away and returned to prowling along the length of the ring, calling useless orders two the half-dozen females still tumbling around in the mud. All the while, he kept his wings slightly flared, knowing that she was watching, and she hated it. She hated it because he was as well as claiming her.
“Come on, Mother wants you home,” he said, coming up to stand right on the other side of the rope. She turned to him and allowed a bit of a scowl to slip back her carefully schooled face and stepped over the barrier, thankful for the fact that she didn’t have her normal skirts on. He added more quietly, “She says Father will return soon and she doesn’t want you to be gone when he does.”
“It’s not like I did anything, anyway,” she mumbled, tucking her chin down to her chest as she gained pace beside her brother as he led her down the busy main road of the Windhaven camp.
Old buildings erupted on either side of them. Some of the bakeries, others covert launders disguised as dress shops for those females who simply couldn’t handle the full weight of all the clothes they were tasked to clean. No one truly paid attention to her, mostly because some females wore pants and shirts. They were normally the ones who were in charge of cleaning out the training pits or doing any other dirty, less-desirable activities.
“Commander Leorin too hard for you?” he asked, his voice serious even though she knew he was joking. He had warned her that the Commander wasn’t going to do shit, yet she’d had enough hope to string him into a plan so she could slip away and attend the training session.
She didn’t even reply, instead, she just kept her eyes on the ground, making sure her wings were held as close to her body as they possibly could.
“The General is taking a visit within a couple of days, but we don’t know how long he will be staying. Father told me to tell you that you, and you alone, will be in charge of cleaning the High Lord’s home for his visit. He thought it would be more worth your time than cleaning up fighting arenas or mopping up the floors when Mother could easily do it.” She held back a groan, all too well aware of the many males around her. She was expected to be a submitting daughter, doing whatever her father bid her.
So she just nodded and said, “Of course, I’ll start in the morning,”
She knew that he hated telling her what to do or giving her orders, but it was the job that the males had to pick up. Anyway, she wouldn’t mind working away in that old house. While she knew at least six warriors lived full-time there, it wouldn’t be such a hard job to do on her own, without the annoyance of having to keep up the facade of a doting daughter, happy to do any work she was tasked with.
She would be able to relax somewhat and get work done at her own pace since no one would care how she got it done as long as it was spotless by the time the General got there.
They didn’t speak for the rest of the walk home, and they especially didn’t speak to each other once they entered their family’s two-story home back door.
Mother was quietly puttering around the kitchen, drying off pots and setting them on the stove, organizing the cutlery into the drawers. She was gathering produce together and setting them up across the countertop—on top of the cutting board for cutting, near the sink for washing.
When she heard the door close behind Verrin, she looked up over her shoulder, her soft features breaking out into a smile, her blue-green eyes getting a spark of joy into them.
“My rose, please, hurry and get changed before your father comes home and sees you.” She said, smiling warmly at her only daughter, and looked to Verrin, bowing her head slightly. “Welcome home, my son. How was training?”
The routine greeting had no effect of Verrin as he brushed path Esophina, going straight into the kitchen to pull his mother into his arms. He planted a kiss on her cheek, saying how glad he was to finally be home, before he sat down at the table, picking up an apple and taking one of his daggers to cut it up.
“Hurry,” Mother urged, gesturing to the stack of onions, carrots, and celery on top of the cutting board. “I need these all cut up, and I have to run to the market to grab the meat.”
She moved over to the door, planting a kiss on Esophina’s cheek, and slipped on her tearing beige leather boots and left out the door.
Esophina knocked the mud from her boots and slipped up the stairs before Verrin could say something about how she should hurry up since Father was to be home any minute, since he liked to think she needed to be reminded simple things such as that.
She washed up and un-braided her hair, sitting down on her bed to comb through the length of it until it was a shining black sheet of hair down the center of her back. Then she donned one of her two dresses, not caring that the hem of the skirt was coated in a layer of mud of pieces of straw. It was supposed to look like she’d been wearing it for the last couple hours, not something completely different.
By the time she was back downstairs, Verrin was nowhere in sight, but by the fact that his dagger still sat on the table, he hadn’t gone far. He never left the home without his beloved blade strapped to his thigh.
All the vegetables were finished when Mother came back holding a package of fresh pheasant, blood still dripping from the once-brown parchment wrappings. She shooed Esophina from the kitchen so that she could complete the soup, sending her to tidy up the living room until dinner was ready.
It took no time for Father to start calling after her as soon as he entered the front door of the house.
“Nina! I just had a very interesting conversation with Commander Leorin,” he called, his words promising trouble, but his tone saying something completely different. Maybe she wasn’t going to get into trouble, after all. The Mother could be merciful.
She moved to the archway of the living room, bowing her head and folding her hands in front of her stomach.
“Yes, Father?” she asked, her voice carefully neutral. She heard Verrin coming down the stairs with quick steps and paused at the bottom.
“I have some news to share over dinner,” he said and patted her on her shoulder. His boots were covered in mud, and as he stepped away, he left a big splotch of dirt. She would have to clean that later while Mother did the dishes. “Darling Anne, how has your day been?”
Esophina looked up in time to see Father wrap an arm around Mother’s waist. He planted a kiss on the top of her head, smiling into her dark hair as she said quietly, “Nice and quiet. I got to patch up your favorite dress shirt for our anniversary next week.”
It was a reminder that the two of them were in fact mates, and had been for a half a century. His complete love for her was the only reason why both of their wings remained unclipped and most of the reason why, at the age of twenty-nine, Esophina was still unmarried and at home. Most of the females her age were either married or were working for the camp itself, keeping the main roads clean or working at the taverns.
“Dinner will be ready any minute,” Mother says, slowly taking a step away from Father. She smiled at him, a softness in her eyes, then looked over his shoulder at Esophina. “Come, I need help setting the table.”
Father started a conversation with Verrin as they went up the stairs. Verrin spoke about how he got a job to help escort a young couple to another camp, and Father congratulated him.
Esophina slipped into the dining room and set up the table, taking her spot farthest away from the doorway. Mother followed by filling the bowls with soup, placing a hearty serving of bread beside Verrin and Father’s and breaking one in half to share with Esophina.
She called out with her soft voice, notifying the males that dinner was ready, and she took her place near the head of the table, her hands folded carefully on her lap, her head bowed slightly as she waited.
Verrin and Father came in and took their seats; Verrin to Esophina’s left, and Father to his, so that no one could leave the room without walking past the male of the house.
They started eating and Esophina kept her eyes firmly planted on the food in front of her, finding it hard to focus on anything other than what her father had said: I just had a very interesting conversation with Commander Leorin.
Was he going to get mad at her for being in that training arena? Or was he going to praise her for being a proper lady and staying out of whatever they were doing? She didn’t even let herself fathom the possibility that it was something more personal. Something that had to do with the fact that she was still unmarried.
“Esophina, the Commander told me you were by the sparring rings today,” Father said, and the room fell uncomfortably quiet. She bowed her head even deeper; there was no need to act like it wasn’t true. “He also said you stayed on the side. That you were uncomfortable by the idea of even being near the rings.”
When he didn’t say anything else, she realized he was waiting for an answer. “I don’t know what I was even thinking when I went there.”
“That doesn’t matter now,” he said, and she stopped herself from sighing in absolute relief. “What matters now is that he’s thinking about marriage.”
The only sign of Mother’s surprise was a quick, delicate gasp before she clamped her lips shut. There wasn’t anything else she, or Verrin, could do anymore. She was supposed to be married by now, not acting like an immature teenager still at home.
“You could do far, far worse. Be grateful a commander landed his eyes on you and not some nobody soldier like Verrin here.” He said, and she felt it sting. Not for herself, because he was, in his own way, complimenting her, but for her brother who was still a young and untested soldier. He was climbing the ranks far quicker than anyone else his age normally would and had an impressive circle of respect and admirers.
“So next week when he is hosting another training session, I want you to be there to speak to him.” He said, and she knew that meant he wanted her to get all dolled up to go and show herself off, make herself seem like an enticing offer. “Esohpina,” he snapped, and she lifted her head to look into his harsh blue eyes.
“Of course, Father. I’ll be ready,” she said, and at the approval that flashed in his eyes, she looked back down at her bowl of soup and continued to eat.